An unsupervised childhood: Can we learn from Utah’s example?

My newborn is finally sleeping the back seat after a 45-minute car ride. Any parent of a newborn knows how precious sleep can be. The rule is, you never wake a sleeping baby. But I sit there in the back lane, debating. Should I leave the baby in the car and run inside to quickly grab the item that I need or do I bring him inside with me? If I move him, I know I will wake him. I’ve spent  minutes driving around endlessly, listening to screams, waiting for him to fall asleep. It will take me 30 seconds to grab what I need inside and then we can continue on our merry car ride.  But I am fearful to leave  - even though he is safely sleeping in a locked car. I have heard too many stories of parents being harshly policed for their decisions of leaving their child unattended for any amount of time.

 

Stories such as when a Winnipeg mother was investigated by Child and Family Services after a neighbour reported that her 5 and 10 year old children were playing unattended in a fenced backyard.  Or the case of the Vancouver father who trained his four children, ages 7-11 to take public transit together to school, a practice subsequently stopped after interventions from social workers. These stories show the propensity to judge parental decisions to leave children unattended and the failure of our society to collectively look after the interests of children.

 These stories also reflect the classism inherent in dominant helicopter parenting paradigms. For example, in 2014, an African American mother in South Carolina was jailed for allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play in the park while she worked her shift in MacDonald’s. She was harshly judged for her actions despite the lack of financial means available to provide alternative care for her child and the steps she had taken to ensure the safety of her daughter. 

 

Bill SB65 was recently signed into law in Utah. The bill outlines specific situations where leaving a child alone does not qualify as neglect, such as traveling to and from school or recreational facilities by walking, running, or biking; playing outside; or sitting in a car unattended. The child must be at least 9 years old and in reasonably safe conditions.1 The bill is credited as being part of the free-range parenting movement.

 

The idea behind free-range parenting is that children should be free to grow up with limited parental supervision, instilling independence with parents utilizing a common-sense approach to leaving their child unattended. Arguably, the underlying principles of the movement are not new but harken back to North American parenting practices 20 years ago and align with a diversity of cultures which allow children more space for autonomous exploration. 

 

Across Canada the rules regarding the supervision of children are varied. In Manitoba, a child under 12 is deemed to be in need of protection when left unattended without reasonable provisions being made for the supervision and safety of the child.2 There are no laws in Manitoba which specifically outline the requirements regarding the unsupervised active transportation of children to school or other locations, playing outside, or sitting unattended in a car3. In applying such broad laws, the Courts have considered age among several other factors, assessing what constitutes adequate supervision and care on a case-by-case basis. 4

 

While it is unlikely that practices of allowing children to walk to school or play in the playground unsupervised are going to garner criminal charges in Manitoba, such parental actions may very well attract the attention of Child and Family Services. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the law in Manitoba no doubt contributes to parental anxieties about allowing their children under 12 to do activities unattended. Having a law in Manitoba similar to that of Utah’s might set a helpful base line standard of allowing children under 12 to be able to engage in some activities independently.

 

More essential than passing a new law, however, is the need to shift the dominant cultural paradigms around parenting. In a recent Maclean’s article, Stephen Marche, noted that “[w]e are all caught in the matrix of a social force that isn’t good for us and doesn’t actually reflect the real dangers to our children. The cure is for us to stop judging ourselves and others”.5 Indeed, we need to recognize the diverse cultural and financial circumstances of families which do not allow for the constant supervision of children yet do not place children at substantial risk. As parents, many of us need to become more comfortable with allowing our children to take age appropriate risks. Importantly, we need to collectively look out for the interests of the children among us. Rather than rushing to report and judge a parent who leaves a child unattended, we need to take a few minutes to assess the safety of the situation with sensitivity. As a society, we need to open up a space for more dialogue about the way that we think about what being a good parent means.

 

Endnotes

 

1 Chelsea Ritschel, “Utah passes America’s first ‘free-range parenting’ bill”, 26 March 2018, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/utah-free-range-parenting-bill-legislation-law-neglect-independence-a8275051.html.

 

2 The Child and Family Services Act, CCSM c C80, s.17(2)(g).

 

3 Monica Ruiz-Casares & Ivana Radic, “Legal Age for Leaving Children Unsupervised Across Canada,” Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, March 2015, http://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/en/144e.pdf

 

4 Monica Ruiz-Casares & Ivana Radic, “Legal Age for Leaving Children Unsupervised Across Canada,” Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal, March 2015, http://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/en/144e.pdf

 

5 Stephen Marche, “We need to stop worrying and just let our kids play,” Macleans, 17 April 2018, < www.macleans.ca/society/we-need-to-stop-worrying-and-just-let-our-kids-play/>.

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