Kids' Solo Playtime Unleashes 'Free-Range' Parenting Debate : Shots - Health News A number of parents have made news in recent months for letting children walk or play outside on their own. But laws on when kids are allowed to be by themselves are vague.

Kids' Solo Playtime Unleashes 'Free-Range' Parenting Debate

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OK, here are a few questions that may have very different answers depending on who you are. At what age is it OK to let a child walk to school alone or stay by herself in a parked car? A number of parents have made news after being arrested for purposely leaving children on their own. It's prompted a renewed debate about so-called free-range parenting, what moms and dads say is a way to promote independent, even fearless kids. But what's free range to some can seem like neglect to others. That's part of our occasional look at issues facing the modern family. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: There's been a steady stream of stories


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A mother is in jail tonight after witnesses say she left her nine-year-old daughter at a park for hours at a time.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A Florida mom charged with letting her seven-year-old son walk to a neighborhood park alone.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are being investigated after complaints were filed when they let their children, ages 10 and six, walk a mile by themselves to a park.

LUDDEN: That was from WJBF in Augusta, Ga., WFTS in Tampa and WAMU in Washington, D.C. In Austin, Texas, last year, Child Protective Services showed up after a six-year-old was reported to be playing alone in a field 150 yards from his house. His mom, Kari Anne Roy, told "CBS This Morning" she was shocked.


KARI ANNE ROY: If CPS gets a call, you want them to check on the welfare of the children. However, I think that when they're getting these kinds of frivolous calls it's wasting resources.

CHRIS JAMES-BROWN: The first responsibility is to that child.

LUDDEN: Chris James-Brown heads the Child Welfare League of America.

JAMES-BROWN: So let's not let all this free-range stuff get in the way just because it looks like this mother's OK, 'cause there are lots of people where it's not OK.

LUDDEN: Most child welfare cases today are for neglect, not abuse. As for going without supervision, few states set a strict minimum age, instead advising parents to use their judgment. Is the child mature? Do they know how to call 911, reach a parent?

JOHN MYERS: The way neglect is defined in the law, it's a very vague definition. It kind of has to be.

LUDDEN: John Myers teaches family law at the University of the Pacific and represents children in juvenile court. A 10-year-old may be perfectly fine walking alone in one neighborhood, he says, not so with drug dealers on the corner.

MYERS: We hate to say that the people that live in those two communities ought to be treated differently because we would probably get into uncomfortable issues of socioeconomic status and ethnicity. But that's the reality in our country.

LUDDEN: Myers sees a clear link between poverty and what some may consider neglect. Last year, a single mother in South Carolina was arrested for letting her daughter play in a park while she worked at McDonald's. Myers says working parents with no money for a sitter, no car, no spouse, may well leave kids alone out of necessity, but it doesn't mean they don't care.

MYERS: If anything, parents who live in poverty are more likely to be helicopter parents. They're more worried about their children when they go to school, whether they'll be sucked into gang life or teaching them how to duck when they hear gunfire and all kinds of stuff because they understand some of the risks that their children may be exposed to.

LUDDEN: Safe neighborhood or not, Chris James-Brown of the Child Welfare League says attitudes have changed. As a child, she walked to school alone, and neighbors looked out for her. But when she became a mom and tried to warn another dad that his daughter was dodging cars in a game of chicken...

JAMES-BROWN: Well, the parent laid me out. I mean, I was like this by the time he finished with me. And so what is it now about our communities that that would happen? You know, you go from the expectation that somebody's going to tell mom, right, to - if told, they'd be viewed as busybodies.

LUDDEN: Communities today may be made up of strangers, but James-Brown says they still have a stake in how kids are raised and a role to play in keeping them safe. She hopes all the media scrutiny gets more people thinking about what that role should be. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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