Does Australia need 'free range parenting' laws?

Fee range parenting.
Fee range parenting. Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Like most children of the 80s, I would jump on my bike after breakfast and disappear until dinner time, and I walked to school from the age of six. However this sort of childhood has been replaced with kids who stay indoors, are driven to school and supervised almost every moment of the day.

What happened? Is it that we're more responsible now? Or are we more afraid?

Over the past few years there has been an attempt to recapture those carefree days of kids wandering the streets, playing in parks and getting themselves to and from school. What we once just called "parenting" now has a name: "free range parenting".

Lenore Skenazy caused a sensation in 2010 when she released her book Free-Range Kids, sharing how she allowed her son to catch the subway home by himself in New York City at the age of nine. Some were outraged, accusing her of neglect and putting her son in harm's way. Others were inspired to allow their own children more freedom.

Now the US state of Utah has passed "free range parenting" laws, making it legal for parents to let their children walk around the neighbourhood or play in the park unsupervised.

If you're like me, you'll be scratching your head and thinking, "Wait, that was illegal before?"

Well, kind of, yes. The problem was that parents were being investigated for negligence if someone reported seeing their children alone in public. Some parents even lost custody of their kids for short periods of time.

It's a murky area, with many factors to consider. But do we need these laws in Australia?

Currently each state has its own laws about the supervision of children, but they're all subject to interpretation, which can be confusing for parents and police.

Advertisement

The Queensland law, for example, dictates that "a person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour".

What is a reasonable time, and what is reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child is open for discussion, and could ultimately be decided by a magistrate.

In 2015, police in the town of Miles, 340km west of Brisbane, created an uproar when they circulated a notice telling parents that children under 12 could not travel to and from school alone. They later clarified that this wasn't meant to be general advice, but was in response to some incidents involving very young children being found walking long distances alone.

Victoria's law is similar to Queensland's, while New South Wales doesn't have a law that states what age children can be left alone, but it does stipulate that it is the parents' responsibility to look after them.

This lack of clarity can be confusing for parents, and it leaves them divided on whether their children should be allowed to walk around their neighbourhood unsupervised.

Some parents, such as Rebecca Churchill, have always chosen interpret Australian laws in the more lenient way.

"My boys were all catching the bus to school from kindergarten and started walking home from about Year Two," she says. 

"They walk in a big group and there are plenty of people around. I've also encouraged them to play at our local park and go out on bike rides. We live in a great neighbourhood and they know the rules. I think we need to foster confidence and independence in our kids while setting clear boundaries."

Melissa Ross agrees. "My kids are seven and nine," she says. "We have a park 50 metres away at the end of the street. For the past six months or so we've walked them over, as they have to cross the street, but then left them there to play. Generally we check on them every 15 to 20 minutes or so. Never had an issue. I'm planning to let them ride or walk to school by the end of this year. It's about one kilometre or so and they have a train line and a main road with lights to cross."

Other parents are more hesitant, claiming the risks are too high.

"There's plenty of time for my kids to learn independence later," says mum of eight-year-old twin girls Miki Barker. "Nothing is as important to me as their safety, and I couldn't live with myself if I sent them out on their own and something happened."

Clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland Dr Sasha Lynn says there are considerable benefits to allowing your children to take care of themselves.

"Supporting children to build independence and a sense of responsibility for themselves is a vital part of shaping healthy, functional members of society," she says.

Dr Lynn says it's important for parents to consider the age and maturity level of their children, the environment they live in, and safety factors such as busy roads and train lines.

It's for this reason our laws are necessarily so hazy. What may be perfectly acceptable for a child with friends or siblings to travel with in a quiet country town may be a different scenario entirely for a similar child on their own in a busy urban setting. Each case is different.

Dr Lynn says it's up to parents to determine what limits to place on each child on a case-by-case basis.

"Parents are the experts on their own children," she said. "They are best placed to know what their child is capable of. Providing clear boundaries and consistency is key."

Allowing children the chance to explore is important, says Dr Lynn, but it does have to be something both parent and child are comfortable with.

"It's not going to work for everyone," she says. "Parents who are worried, perhaps take it in smaller or slower stages. Support your child to take some independent steps."