For the better part of the 20th century, children were trusted to make their way home from school and remain unsupervised for hours at a time. Now, we need laws to protect parents who want their children to experience this freedom. The shift from latchkey kids to helicopter parents fascinates me, as does the passing of a ‘free-range parenting’ law in Utah this month.
The term latchkey kid was in common use by the early 1940s, when many children were coming home from school to an empty house because their mothers were working while their fathers were serving overseas. It grew to describe most children of middle- and upper-income Generation X families, who were given keys to their houses to let themselves in when the school day was finished, before one or both parents returned from work. I was one of those kids, at the very tail end of that generation. Those who were at the start of Gen X were already having kids when I was coming home alone from elementary school – and those Gen Xers were starting a parenting style that saw the term ‘helicopter parent’ become more widely used than latchkey kid.
Now I’m a parent and I’m stuck with the fallout of these conflicting approaches. There are parents who have been investigated for neglect after letting their elementary-school-aged children walk home from the park alone – something I did as a kid and expect to do as a parent. The term ‘free-range parenting’ came into use ten years ago, when Lenore Skenazy, a mother with a talent for writing, detailed letting her intelligent, responsible, well-prepared nine-year-old find his way home in New York City. She faced intense criticism and scrutiny for this, as well as much admiration. This month, the Governor of Utah signed a bill into law that protects this type of parenting. As Skenazy describes it, the bill “specifically allows parents to let their kids run errands, play outside and even wait briefly in the car without fear of this being labeled abuse or neglect!”
This is exactly what I want. The freedom to make choices that I feel are safe for my children, choices that allow them to gain independence and hone their critical thinking skills. We have a keypad entry. Our three kids know the access code and how to open the door if it’s locked. I’d trust them all to stay home alone for the length of time it would take me to go to the store to buy milk, but I worry that would be seen as neglect. Our six-year-old rides the bus to and from school each day. I trust her to walk safely home without supervision, but I can’t. If an adult is not at the bus stop waiting for her, she won’t be let off the bus.
I get that it’s a hard line to define as a society. We want to do our best to ensure every child is being cared for in a way that is safe. But we also need to raise our children to be critical thinkers and capable of responsible behaviour. This doesn’t suddenly appear on their 13th or 16th or 19th birthdays. It comes from a series of smaller steps that build resilience and confidence and decision-making skills. The Utah bill is promoted as a counter to the generation that grew up with helicopter parents, a group of young adults described as being unable to navigate the ‘real world’ without their parents’ interfering at university and even their workplace. That’s not the future I want for my children, or our society. Let’s bring a little free-range and latchkey back into our day-to-day lives.