Are You a “Free -Range Parent”?

For years we’ve heard about “Helicopter Parents”, a style of parenting many feel is the overprotection of children, perhaps to the detriment of children as they mature into adults. When I was a child, I don’t remember a label being placed on my parents’ “style” of parenting. In fact, I do not think they even knew what their style was back then.  They just did much of what their parents did – why not?  My grandparents were, and my parents are, good, productive people who loved and appreciated their parents.  They simply modeled what they viewed as good parenting in their own personal child rearing.  For me, it seemed to work, as I believe I am a good, productive person who loves and appreciates my parents.  But in the recent past, parenting has changed; one change being known as Helicopter Parenting.

Helicopter Parenting v. Free-Range Parenting

I never really understood Helicopter Parenting in that I was raised to be independent.  I was allowed to ride my bike to school, play with my friends in the neighborhood, go to the park alone.  I was not a latch-key kid; quite the contrary.  My parents were (and are) married and my Mom was a devoted stay-at-home.  Most of my friends had similar experiences.

Now, however, there is a movement across the country to change laws which many feel represent Helicopter Parenting and interfere with their ability to parent their children a bit more the way I was raised and to not fear a visit from the police or the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).  This style of parenting has been labeled “Free-Range Parenting.”

Free-Range Parenting is not the law in California, nor it is the law in most states, but Utah recently enacted the “free-range parenting” law, which was enacted into law on May 15, 2018.  In Utah, the law has been revised to say it is no longer neglect to allow mature children with good judgment to travel to school alone, explore a playground or stay in their parents’ car if they are otherwise well cared for. An age limit was purposely not defined, but the law provides that children left alone should be of “sufficient age and maturity”.

The Law

California is not a “Free-Range” parenting state. Therefore, there are many laws a parent can find themselves on the wrong side of because of either their own or their child’s, actions. Here are a few of the most relevant California laws that Free-Range Parents may or may not like:

  1. Unattended in Vehicle: A child under 6 years of age cannot be left without somebody 12 years or older when conditions present a significant risk to the child’s health or safety or when the engine is running or keys are in the ignition. (Cal. Veh. Code §15620)
  2. Bicycle Laws:   A child under the age of 18 must wear a helmet.  (Cal. Veh. Code §21212)
  3. Skateboard Laws: A child must wear a helmet, elbow pads and knee pads while riding a skateboard at skateparks. (Health & Safety Code §115800(a))  Also, it is illegal to hold onto a moving vehicle while on a bike, skates or a skateboard. (Cal. Veh. Code §21203)
  4. Leaving a Child Home Alone:  There is no specific age.
  5. Curfew: There is no California state law for curfew but is often established by local ordinances.  Generally, curfew is 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and 12:00 a.m. on weekends with some exceptions.
  6. Child Neglect:  Failure to adequately supervise or protect the child could result in a full array of social and health services to help the child and family and to prevent reabuse of children. (Cal. Welfare And Institutions Code §300)
  7. Child Endangerment: Where a parent willfully permits a child to be placed in a situation where their health is endangered could result in jail time for the parent. (Cal. Penal Code § 273A)

Parenting Styles in Custody Disputes

As provided above, the broad language of the child neglect and child endangerment statutes make it such that many parents fear they can be accused of neglect or endangerment if they are not hovering over their children. For example, is a child’s health endangered if left at home alone for 30 minutes?  Is a parent guilty of neglect because they allowed their child to ride their bicycle to school? 

In family law, where there is a contested custody case, is the next frontier where a parent seeks to limit the custody of parent that wants to more freely parent?  Is such free-parenting in the best interests of the children?  Conversely, is Helicopter Parenting in the best interests of the children?  Another consideration is that while the child may be kept safe in the cocoon of the Helicopter Parent, is that child being raised to be an independent and productive person and is this risk of future dependence in the best interest of the children?  Time will tell.

These are all possibilities and therefore fertile ground for litigation in family law.  Time will tell how these issues are handled by the Courts.