83rd Carolina Cup (copy)

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen takes in the festivities at 83rd running of the Carolina Cup at Springdale Racecource in Camden in April 2017. Sheheen says he let his kids start riding their bikes to the park alone in elementary school, and he wants to ensure parents like him aren't punished for granting their children independence. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Parents shouldn't be punished for letting their children walk to school alone or sit in a parked car on a mild spring day, according to one South Carolina lawmaker.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, has introduced a bill that would specify it is OK for a child "of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm" to play outdoors unattended.

While the bill, S. 79, does not set any age minimums, it is meant to clarify to the state Department of Social Services that certain situations do not call for state intervention or charges of child abuse.

"Parents should be free to raise children in ways that they see fit without fear of someone looking over their shoulder as long as they’re not harming their child," Sheheen said.

The bill is similar to a first-of-its-kind "free-range parenting" law that passed the Utah state legislature in 2018. A similar bill failed to pass the Arkansas state legislature in 2017. Lawmakers and conservative think tanks have begun pushing for similar legislation in Texas and New York.

Sheheen said he remembers walking the half-mile to his grandmother's house alone when he was in second grade. Raising his own three children in the quiet city of Camden, he said he started letting them ride their bikes to school and public parks when they were in elementary school.

"We encouraged our children’s independence as much as possible," he said. "I felt it was very important for us not to micromanage or 'helicopter' their lives."

Similar bills have gained popularity in libertarian political circles. Writing for the libertarian magazine Reason in 2017, New York-based activist Lenore Skenazy accused state lawmakers in Arkansas of believing they knew better than parents how to protect children.

"After all, not only are they infected by the fear of our times — that children are in constant danger — they have another fear hanging over their heads: What if an investigation is closed and later on a child is hurt? Won't that hurt their own political career?" she wrote.

Skenazy launched a book and public speaking career in 2008 with a column she wrote in The New York Sun titled "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone."

In South Carolina, Sheheen said there wasn't any particular incident that sparked his interest in a free-range parenting bill for South Carolina. He started with a more general observation.

"We actually live in the safest time for kids in probably the history of the country, certainly in the last 50 years," he said, "but there's this fear out there for some reason."

Across the country, controversies over young children walking to school or parks by themselves have occasionally made headlines. In August, a California family demanded answers from school administrators who let a Kindergartner walk more than two miles home alone through downtown Hayward.

Sheheen is the only sponsor on the bill. It received a first reading Tuesday and was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.