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Basically, New Law Re-Legalizes Childhood

Photograph by Twenty20

Here's what it's like to raise young kids these days: If you don't let your kid out of your sight, you're accused of parenting malpractice, helicoptering and raising the next generation of frightened, entitled brats. If you do let your kid out of your sight, you're a criminal, subject to arrest (no, really: arrest!) and you may even be investigated by Child Protective Services (certainly if your story gets around, a loud chorus will definitely recommend it).

When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law, he also sent a message to parents, nosy neighbors and, hopefully, law enforcement officers everywhere about the rights (and needs) of kids to walk to school or the park or the store—to roam neighborhoods and explore without adult supervision. A little talked about but powerful section of ESSA, 858, protects the rights of kids to go out alone, thereby taking away parents' fear of police arrest and child removal for, you know, letting their be kids.

Utah senator Mike Lee, a proponent of the Free Range Kids movement, sponsored the act in an effort to support and encourage parents who allow their children autonomy. The Free Range Kids movement started and received national attention after New York City journalist and mom Lenore Skenazy was excoriated in the press for allowing her son, then 9, to get himself from Manhattan home to Queens—alone—by way of the New York City transit system.

Since then, she's gone on national TV and written stories about parents who have come under fire—some under arrest—for allowing their kids to go to the park alone. Skenazy argues that we've never been safer in the U.S. but headlines and the 24-hour news cycle have given American parents, lawmakers and even law enforcement the sense that children are in more danger than ever.

Writing recently in the NY Post, Skenazy points out the irony of where we're at in terms of stranger-danger and safety. The crime level is now as low as it was in 1963.

"Ironically, kids walking to school today are actually very safe—safer than their parents were," she wrote. "As Sen. Lee wrote in an email to me, 'America faces great challenges today. Kids walking to school with their parents' permission is not one of them.'"

Despite the provision in ESSA, state and local laws and ordinances are still in effect. But the hope within this new federal law is that law enforcement won't be so quick to place a stranger's report of "kids wandering around alone" above parents' own judgment about what their kids can handle and how they'd like them to grow up.

So parents are still somewhat caught between a rock and a hard place. But they did just get a bit more wiggle room.

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