Sometimes, well-intended laws, policies and cultural norms set children back rather than help them thrive. That’s certainly true for child neglect and endangerment laws, especially when it comes to whether and when children can be unsupervised.
In most states, these laws rarely give parents a clue about when their children can be unattended at home or outside. The result is a chilling effect on parents as they decide when to let their children do things like walk to school, ride their bikes around the block, run an errand or wait in the car for a few minutes. Childhood independence builds confidence and competence. But parents may err on the side of delaying such important steps for fear a neighbor or stranger who sees a child alone outside could call the abuse and neglect hotline or 911.
And sadly, their fear may be justified. The media is full of stories of parents who have been arrested by police, investigated by child protection authorities, or simply threatened and shamed for letting their kids have an ounce of independence — even for such routine decisions as letting a child sit in the children’s area of the library for five minutes (a 6-year-old); walk their dog (an 8-year-old); play in a park while their mother worked (a 9-year-old); or walk home from a park (brother and sister, 10 and 6 years old).
The status quo runs counter to what our recent research has shown, which is that children are more capable of independence, often at a younger age, than the culture seems to realize. And we are heartened that at least a handful of states have begun to appreciate the importance of supporting, not stunting, their growth.
On April 11, 2023, we published “The Unintended Consequences of ‘Lack of Supervision’ Child Neglect Laws: How Developmental Science Can Inform Policies about Childhood Independence and Child Protection” in the Social Policy Review, a peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.
In our paper, we reviewed the developmental science literature as applied to the simple task of walking to school. We chose this activity — once so commonplace that kindergarten teachers expected it of their 5- and 6-year-old students — because today only 13% of students ages 6 to 14 get themselves to school, according to a 2018 report. Our review of the research found that parents from English-speaking countries generally expect children to have the capability to be unsupervised around 9- or 10-years-old, but Japanese and Kenyan parents expect children to have such capabilities by 5 or 6.
The knowledge base across multiple developmental domains suggests that children do gain the ability to manage independence at younger ages than laws in the U.S. typically allow. Consider the following, all backed up by research:
Physical abilities: By the age of 6 or 7, most children have the physical ability to walk, bike, or wheel themselves to school (if they use wheelchairs).
Cognitive abilities: Perception, attention, inhibition, memory, decision-making and problem-solving all improve greatly between 4 and 7 years old, to the point that most children have the cognitive abilities to handle some degree of independence — the same abilities that allow children at these ages to participate in and benefit from formal education.
Language: By age four, most children have learned the social patterns of speech, including how to listen and respond appropriately.
Spatial skills: Children who are exposed to their neighborhoods on foot have the increasing ability to not get lost and to remember the route home. By age four, children can even start to learn to read maps (if maps are still in use!).
For all of these developmental areas, mastery improves with practice. Moreover, as we document in our article, the lack of opportunities for independence, and especially for free, unsupervised play, limits children’s growth and ability to flourish. As research we cite establishes, “For healthy, positive development, children need a balance of safety and adventure.”
In the United States, the way that neglect laws vaguely cover unsupervised time for children jeopardizes children’s need for adventure. Let Grow, a national nonprofit, has worked on tightening state laws and explicitly protecting children’s unsupervised activities from being mistaken for neglect. Five states — Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Virginia — have passed “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws. But at least 40 states still have child protection and criminal endangerment laws that lack protection for families who give their kids some ordinary, and healthy, childhood independence. See Let Grow Maps.
While working on legislative policy changes, Let Grow encountered repeated questions from legislators and advocates as to the “right” age for kids to be allowed some unsupervised time.
Invariably, the age lawmakers coalesced around is about 9 years old, which tracks with what we found about expectations of supervision in English-speaking countries. But while getting to a numerical solution might have solved one problem — a high age limit like 9 would cause a raft of other negative consequences.
The issue came up directly in South Carolina. There, a 9-year-old named Blaise testified against a proposed amendment that said children age 9 and up could be unsupervised. He pointed out that even if that meant he could play outside, he wouldn’t be able to play with his younger brothers.
Given the developmental and cross-cultural variance evidence showing that most children are capable of managing periods of independence of varying lengths at younger ages, it follows that policies that label parents neglectful for failure to supervise their children can limit child healthy development. It’s almost as if we have willed American children to be treated as incompetent at managing their own unsupervised time, and then used laws and policies to reinforce that conclusion.
But we didn’t write a scholarly survey of the developmental literature as a purely academic exercise. We published it in the Social Policy Review because it is a policy-focused journal that enlists developmental psychologists to address topics of significant interest to policy makers. Accordingly, our paper presents 25 recommendations aimed at broad audiences who care about children and family life. Here are just a few:
For legislators, policy makers and advocates: “Review state policies and practices governing mandated reporting and reporter education so that calls to the Hotlines do not have the effect of abridging children’s independence, absent genuine risk of harm.”
For developmental scientists: “Partner with advocacy organizations at a federal and state level to inform legislation about developmental science research.”
For parents: “Engage in dialog with children where they can discuss what they feel ready to do, listen to their opinions, and respect that they may be ready to do more things than you expect.”
The task of allowing and encouraging children to thrive is everyone’s business. By writing the article and sharing our views here, we hope to start a national conversation about how our laws, policies and norms can give children the independence they need to become the healthiest and most capable people they can be.