How much supervision of a child is enough? Can there ever be too much? Parents – and professionals – differ on the the best parenting methods to raise healthy and independent children. But sometimes free-range parenting styles and Child Protective Services can clash. A new law in Utah protects a parent’s right not to supervise. But will Michigan follow suit?
Parenting Styles Teach maturity differently
There have always been different philosophies about how best to raise a child. Two ends of the parenting spectrum are “helicopter parents” and “free-range parenting”.
Helicopter parents favor 24-7 supervision and control over their children, their activities, and their schedule. These are the parents sitting in the bleachers for every softball practice. They have a reputation for being almost too involved with teachers when their children do poorly in school. One anecdote even tells of a helicopter parent showing up to an adult child’s job interview. To a helicopter parent, supervision and direct intervention are the best ways to teach their children maturity.
Free-range parents take the opposite perspective. They teach maturity and independence by setting age-appropriate tasks for children to accomplish on their own. That could mean giving their teenagers a budget for school clothes and sending them to the mall, or letting their 3 1/2 year-old talk to neighbors at the end of the driveway. However, taken to the extreme, free-range parenting borders on child neglect.
Child Protective Services and Free-Range Parents Collide
In Michigan, child abuse and neglect cases are addressed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Child Protective Services department (CPS). When a mandatory reporter (like a doctor or teacher), or a concerned neighbor or family member believes an adult has fallen short of his or her responsibilities as a parent, they may (or must) contact CPS to protect the child’s best interests.
Child Protective Services must follow up on every call it receives. That means when a neighbor sees kids playing alone in the park and calls CPS, a social worker is legally required to investigate both parents. If there are no signs of neglect, the report is “unsubstantiated” and the case is closed.
But Michigan laws – and similar laws nationwide – leave a lot of room for interpretation. Michigan’s DHHS says improper supervision means:
Placing the child in, or failing to remove the child from, a situation that a reasonable person would realize requires judgment or actions beyond the child’s level of maturity, physical condition, or
mental abilities and results in harm or threatened harm to the child.
In recent years, CPS has tended in the direction of the Helicopter parenting style. Even though there is no legal age limit for a child to be left home alone or allowed to play unsupervised, DHHS Internal policy says “as a rule of thumb, a child 10 years old and younger is not responsible enough to be left home alone.” And that has caused problems when Free Range parents and CPS workers find themselves at odds.
Teaching Subway Routes Leads to CPS Case
For example, in 2008, Lenore Skenazy, a New York mom was labeled “World’s Worst Mom” after she left her 9-year-old son at Bloomingdale’s to teach him how to use the subway. Here’s how she describes it:
I left my 9-year-old at Bloomingdale’s (the original one) a couple weeks ago. Last seen, he was in first floor handbags as I sashayed out the door.
Bye-bye! Have fun!
And he did. He came home on the subway and bus by himself.
Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.
Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.
No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”
Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.
But many say that decision amounted to child neglect. Others, in Michigan and elsewhere, have had to contend with CPS investigations when they tried to use Free-Range parenting styles to teach their children independence and maturity.
Utah Law Supports Free-Range Parents’ Rights
Then, earlier this year, Utah passed a law supporting Free-Range parenting, and the choice to let children play unsupervised. The law amends the state definition of child neglect to say:
“‘Neglect’ does not include:…
permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities, including:
(A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
(B) traveling to and from nearby commercial and recreational facilities;
(C) engaging in outdoor play;
(D) remaining in a vehicle unattended …
(E) remaining at home unattended; or
(F) engaging in a similar independent activity.
The new law received broad, bipartisan support. Conservatives saw it as protecting the traditional view of family and reducing government interference in day-to-day life. Democrats saw it as protecting the rights of children and parents.
Will Michigan Follow Utah’s Lead on Free-Range Parenting?
After the law passed in Utah, Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning think tank, Libertas Institute, said his organization would be pushing similar bills in other states next year. He said Idaho would consider a bill in 2019, and officials in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas were considering the matter.
But could such a bill come to Michigan? Unfortunately, lawmakers in this state seem to lean more toward Helicopter parenting. CPS and DHHS take the position that unsupervised children are at risk, especially in the state’s more urban areas.
And a recent shooting incident isn’t helping matters. When 14-year-old Brennan Walker missed the bus to Rochester High School, he did just what Lenore Skenazy had hoped her son would do if he got lost: he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask directions. But his neighbor believed the young black man was “trying to break into [his] house” and shot at the boy. Luckily, the child was not hurt. But the story received national attention.
With this narrative in their minds, it seems unlikely CPS will support any shift toward less supervision. And the legislature won’t want to let another story like this happen on their watch. Until this story fades from the collective consciousness, it seems unlikely that Michigan will do anything to support the state’s Free-Range parents, or give children the freedom to pursue unsupervised learning.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents parents in family court. If you and your co-parent have different parenting styles, she can help resolve disputes that arise. Contact Schmidt & Long today for a free consultation.