This August, a new state law goes into effect that protects parents from being charged with neglect if they decide their children can participate in independent activities, such as playing alone in their neighborhoods or walking to school on their own. The Reasonable Independence for Children Act states that “a child is not neglected when allowed to participate in independent activities that a reasonable and prudent parent, guardian, or legal custodian would consider safe given the child’s maturity, condition, and abilities.”
Of course, dangers do exist, but kidnappings by strangers in public spaces remain uncommon, according to Todd Clifford, a Lakewood police officer who retired last year. Reuters reported in 2019 that, on average, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 had been abducted by strangers in the United States per year since 2010, according to the FBI. What’s more, in his 21 years on the police force, Clifford says he did not have to file actual neglect charges against a parent or guardian after receiving a call of suspected neglect, once he assessed the situation. “We have to look at the maturity of the child and look at what is reasonable,” says Clifford.
What is reasonable for parents to do before allowing their kids some independence? Keep these guidelines, approved by Clifford, in mind:
- Make sure your kids memorize their street address and parents’ cell phone numbers.
- Go over what your children should do if a car pulls up near them, or an unfamiliar adult tries to talk to them. Even if the adult means well and is asking the child to help find a lost pet, tell your child to resist the urge to help. Adults should ask other adults—not children—for help.
- Insist they wear closed-toe athletic shoes, to avoid an injury and be able to come home quickly.
- If they have a phone, teach them to use it as a tool. Encourage them to take pictures or record videos of situations, people, or cars that make them feel uneasy.
In his book, Free To Learn, psychologist Peter Gray, Ph.D., outlines why giving children reasonable independence will help them grow into healthier, wiser adults. “When the fear becomes so great that we don’t allow children to play and explore and take risks on their own, we prevent them from learning how to take care of themselves,” he writes. “That may be the greatest danger of all.”