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Criminal Child Neglect and the "Free Range Kid": Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care?

David Pimentel, Ohio Northern University

Abstract

In the last generation, American parenting norms have shifted strongly in favor of Intensive Parenting, placing particular emphasis on protecting children from risks of harm. Recently, a backlash to this trend has emerged. “Free Range” parenting is based on the concern that coddling children through overprotection inhibits the development of their independence and responsibility. Indeed, a growing body of literature suggests that parental overreaction to remote and even illusory risks of physical harm is exposing children to far more serious risks to their well-being and development. But the powerful influence of media has sensationalized the risks to children, skewing popular perceptions of the genuine risks children face and of what constitutes a reasonable or appropriate response to such risks. Consequently, individuals who do not buy into Intensive Parenting norms, including those from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, may be subjecting themselves to criminal prosecution for child neglect and endangerment. The criminal statutes are, for the most part, very vague, leaving these prosecutions—which amount to little more than one person’s second-guessing the parenting choices of another—in the discretion of prosecutors, who bring the charges, and of juries, who render verdicts. If prosecutors and jurors share the media-fed misperceptions of risk, overprotective parenting becomes the de facto legal standard of care. To counter this possibility, it is necessary to define criminal child neglect with far greater specificity and to allow defendants to introduce expert testimony to put the actual risks to children, as well as the downside risk of the precautions themselves, in perspective. Absent such changes, fear of prosecution may effectively force parents to conform to the overprotective parenting norm, to the detriment of society, families, and the children themselves.

Suggested Citation

David Pimentel, Criminal Child Neglect and the "Free Range Kid": Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care?, 2012 Utah L. Rev. 947 (2012).