REUTERS/Keith Bedford

A new amendment tackles the muddled question of kids traveling by themselves.

A provision tucked deep within a gargantuan education bill passed in December clarifies the murky legal standing of free-range parenting—sort of. Advocates for the practice—that is, encouraging kids to build self-reliance skills by traveling their neighborhoods solo—are hailing the 101-word section as a victory, though the law still leaves parents and journeying kiddos subject to state and local guidelines.

The amendment is on page 857 of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and is the work of Mike Lee, the Republican senator from Utah who has become something of a political patron saint of anti-helicopter parenting. The provision declares that nothing will “prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission.”(Note that the language does not specify how parents are to give legitimate permission.)

It also shields parents who allow their kids to travel “reasonably and safely to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate” from civil or criminal charges.

The state and local exemption could be a killer in this case, and one lawyer consulted by StreetsBlogUSA called the amendment a “symbolic effort.” But the legislation proves that people are heeding the call of the free range movement, whose adherents believe that children need to be entrusted with independence in order to grow into independent adults. It also proves a point that Amanda Kolson Hurley highlighted on CityLab last year: Legislating when children are old enough to do anything is a tricky, tricky business.

Governments at all levels—city, state, and federal—have a patchwork of laws surrounding kids being alone. Some states [PDF] have legislation prohibiting leaving children under a certain age in homes by themselves. (The cut-off in North Carolina is ten, in Illinois, 14, and Maryland, eight.) But most leave the question of what constitutes too much trust in children up to local agencies and law enforcement.

But legislation regarding unsupervised kids is “intentionally vague, because there are so many contextual and fact-specific determinants” to each case, Vivek Sankaran, who directs the University of Michigan’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, told Kolson Hurley last year. “The downside is, it gives parents very little guidance about when they can get into trouble.”

And indeed, there are consequences. In April of last year, police picked up ten-year-old Rafi Metiev and his sister, six-year-old Dvora, while the kids were walking home from school in their D.C. suburb. It was the second time authorities had intercepted the children, so Child Protective Services (CPS) opened up a second investigation into their parents, Danielle and Alexander Metiev. Though the agency eventually dismissed both charges, the Metievs went on to sue CPS and the police department for Fourth Amendment violations. (That’s the one that deals with unreasonable searches and seizures.)

Sankaran advocates for a more collaborative child-welfare model, one in which authorities only get involved in “those extreme situations where … it’s below the standard that any parent should be treating [a] child.”

There still are no bright lines here, though the newest amendment is a motion toward that direction. Which leaves an important question: Should you let your children travel by themselves?

In September, journalist Selena Hoy tackled the unique independence of Japanese children for CityLab, noting that kids in that country often venture onto public transit by themselves at age six or seven. She found the big difference between Japan and the U.S. to be an “unspoken” sense of community. Hoy writes:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

The path to giving American kids greater autonomy may have nothing to do with laws, but with parents putting trust—misplaced or no—in the kindness of strangers.

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