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NEVADA VIEWS: Don’t criminalize kids’ independence

Updated February 22, 2021 - 10:28 am

Maybe we look like complete opposites. One of us is a gay, Black and a Democratic mom of one from Clark County. And one of us is a white, Republican and a mom of eight — grandmother of 20 — from Northern Nevada. But we are thrilled to be working together because we are in heated agreement when it comes to this:

Kids have the right to some reasonable independence. And parents have the right to give it to them without being charged with neglect. Now we are supporting a bill that makes this truth into law.

Nevada’s so-called “Reasonable Childhood Independence” bill narrows the definition of child neglect so it doesn’t include simply letting kids engage in normal childhood activities.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be necessary. But right now, the neglect definition is so vague and open-ended, that parents aren’t really sure if they’re allowed to let their kids walk to school or play outside, even into their preteens. Sometimes they second-guess themselves for fear of being labeled bad parents.

Our moms didn’t have to do that.

Dallas Harris here: When I was growing up, my mom worked. She had to. She was single. So she trusted me to behave — which I mostly did — and taught me all the things parents teach their kids: Look both ways before crossing the street. Always let me know where you’re going. Don’t get into a stranger’s car.

I did what she said (well, maybe once in a while I slacked on my cleaning chores) and had a ball. I grew up in Vegas, and while my mom worked at Caesars Palace, I’d jump on my bike and roam the neighborhood. Or my older cousin and I would go look at the model homes and tell the agents, “Our parents are thinking of moving here.” Or we’d grab some rubbish from behind the Home Depot and go build a fort in an empty lot. (There used to be way more of them!) I was 8 years old.

I am very grateful for the freedom and trust I was given — and that my mom was not burdened with guilt for not “helicopter parenting.” She knew I would grow if she let me stretch my wings. And I did.

Alexis Hansen here: My childhood was similar in so many ways. I, too, was the child of a single mom who didn’t have extra money for child care and would depend on my big sister to babysit. But that wasn’t always possible, and I was expected to be careful and responsible till Mom got home. I remember times when Mom went to work and left me home, at age 7, in our close-knit neighborhood in Tonopah. I’d been taught about stranger danger and not to cook when alone. But the best safety tip was what a rattlesnake looked like — this came in handy a few times.

I loved my freedom. I’d roam the neighborhood, or go visit my Mom at the store where she worked. A lady across the street — Katie — befriended me. Her only child was grown, so she taught me how to bake and iron. An old miner taught me about rocks and minerals from his yard display. And then I would take off riding my bike or climb tailing piles from former mining adventures.

Both of us had moms who believed in us. And even though Nevada and society have changed in some ways, we carry that trust forward. We believe in kids and we believe parents know what’s best for them — including when, by choice or necessity, to start loosening the reins. Unfortunately the idea that kids need constant supervision has been reinforced by expanding neglect laws to the point where parents can’t decide for themselves what their kids are ready to do on their own.

This has even become a mental health issue. Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a national nonprofit promoting childhood resilience, points out that, “As kids’ independence has gone down, childhood depression, anxiety and even self-harm have gone up. Independence is like a vitamin. It’s fortifying.”

The threat of an investigation for neglect is not just theoretical. Nearly 40,000 children in Nevada are referred to Child Protective Services each year, mostly under neglect charges. The vast majority of these cases turn out to be unfounded.

Even when a case is closed, however, having had a stranger come into your home, open your cabinets and interrogate your kids is traumatic. And for what? For letting a child run an errand, or come home with a latchkey? That’s creating problems where there weren’t any.

The burden on minority families is disproportionately harsh. Approximately 40 percent of Nevada kids are African American or Hispanic, but they make up 60 percent of those involved in child protection cases.

The Reasonable Childhood Independence bill just brings a little more clarity to the law. It is designed to take into account the wide variation in kids’ abilities and give parents back the flexibility they need to make sometimes seat-of-the-pants decisions.

Of course when parents are truly neglectful — when they put their kids in obvious and egregious danger — we are extremely grateful for CPS. We want them to do their job. The law we’re proposing actually frees the authorities to concentrate on serious cases of abuse and neglect.

Democrats and Republicans both care about protecting kids when they need protection and giving them reasonable independence when they’re ready for it. We’re ready to pass this law to honor the good parents of Nevada — including the ones who raised us.

Dallas Harris, a Las Vegas Democrat, represents District 11 in the Nevada Senate. Alexis Hansen, a Sparks Republican, represents District 32 in the Nevada Assembly.

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