At Let Grow, the nonprofit I co-founded to promote childhood independence, we just completed a first-of-its-kind study of all 50 states’ neglect laws. I am sorry to report that a large majority say parents must not deprive a child of “supervision” or “proper care” but do not explain exactly what those terms mean. Others say parents may not expose their kids to “risk,” without specifying how big or dangerous that risk has to be in order to be prohibited. Too much is left to the discretion of the authorities, which is why you’ve heard of parents arrested or investigated for letting their 8-year-old walk the dog or letting their 9-year-old play at the park while her mother worked a shift at McDonald’s.
Recently I heard from a South Carolina mom who wondered if her kids in first, third, and fifth grade were allowed to walk the mile home from school. The kids, who walk all around town, were psyched about the idea, but the principal decreed that an adult must accompany them. So could the mother get arrested—or even lose her kids—for letting them hoof it?
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