It’s been two weeks since Utah became the first state to pass a “free-range parenting” law, which will allow kids to do certain activities unsupervised without their parents getting in trouble. State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, a sponsor of the bill, told ABC News:
Kids need to wonder about the world, explore and play in it, and by doing so learn the skills of self-reliance and problem-solving they’ll need as adults. As a society, we’ve become too hyper about ‘protecting’ kids and then end up sheltering them from the experiences that we took for granted as we were kids.
A casual observer might be surprised that Utah is leading this experiment. Aren’t religious parents typically the ones who are most likely to keep their kids on a tight leash? In fact, there are a number of reasons why a state with a high concentration of highly religious people, and Mormons in particular, would favor such a law.
The first is that Mormons tend to be fairly libertarian in their political outlook. Their religious narrative is one of being exiled to the Western part of the country and their political narrative is one of the federal government trying to impose its will (particularly with regard to polygamy) on the community. Mormons are notoriously distrustful of Washington. And even when it comes to state and local authorities, the church has set up its own safety net—complete with large storehouses of supplies in case of natural disaster—rather than rely on the public ones. All of this suggests a general suspicion of too much state involvement in private life and certainly the ability of bureaucrats to make determinations about whether and when children can be trusted on their own.
Almost as strong as Mormons distrust of the government is their trust of each other. A 2009 Gallup poll found that “Utah and South Dakota residents are the most likely to express trust in their neighbors, with 85% in these states saying they would expect a neighbor who found a lost wallet or purse containing $200 to return it.” If you are going to pass a law that gives children the ability to be on their own in parks or walk to school by themselves, the likelihood is that you trust your neighbors and other members of your community to help look out for your children.
But Mormons’ family structure also makes it less likely that they would take a “helicopter approach” to parenting. According to a 2009 Pew Survey, “half of all Mormons (49%) have children under age 18 living at home, with one-in-five (21%) saying they have three or more children at home.” For the general population, those numbers are 35% and 9%, respectively. More children inevitably lead to less hovering over each individual child. Older children are generally trusted at younger ages to care for younger siblings.
Even the fact that Mormons tend to get married and have children at younger ages than the average American man and woman also probably leads to a different parenting approach. Older parents with only one or two children are more likely to be overprotective. It’s not that younger parents care less about their children, but older parents may be less adventurous themselves. Moreover, they may have had to try to have children (often with medical help), which likely leads to a more protective attitude when the children finally arrive.
Finally (and yes, I realize I’m engaging in some serious generalizations here), the Mormons I’ve interviewed tend to be very confident about their parenting abilities. They are not looking for anyone to second-guess their decisions and they’re not looking to second-guess their neighbors.
The new law is great news for the free-range parenting movement, but supporters should also be aware that Utah is sui generis.