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Free-Range Kids

two children holding hands, walking away from the camera on a path through a wheat field
photo by Ben Grey

Few things can draw such an emotional reaction as a child in danger, real or perceived.

To some degree, this is as it should be. All of us, especially parents, should take children’s safety very seriously. But the emotions involved also mean that such reactions can cross into murky gray areas where rational argument doesn’t stand much of a chance.

I felt this pull between rational and emotional responses recently when I read about a family in Montgomery County, Maryland who have twice clashed with local authorities over parenting choices. In both cases, the parents allowed their two children, aged 10 and 6, to walk to and from a park about a mile away from home unsupervised. In both instances, neighbors reported seeing the children walking alone; both times, the police took the children into custody and subsequently involved child services.

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv have argued that they should be allowed to determine the risks and rewards of offering their children measured amounts of independence. They are proponents of “free-range parenting,” a label designed as a counterpart to the better-known “helicopter parenting.” In an opinion column for The Washington Post following the first incident, Danielle Meitiv wrote, “Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of young children being outside without adult supervision. […] We think, however, that giving them an opportunity to learn to make their way in the world independently is the best way to prepare them for adulthood - and that it is safe for them to do so.”

As a parent, I can easily understand both sides of this incident. Police and child protective services may have gone too far, but it is also hard to imagine myself in the Meitivs’ place. While Meitiv and others who share her view have rightly pointed out that stranger abduction is exceedingly rare, you never want your family to be the one case in a million, either.

The term “free-range parenting” was popularized by Lenore Skenazy, who suffered wide criticism for publicly stating that she had allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone. Dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” and facing a threat of arrest for child endangerment, Skenazy decided to write a book defending her approach. “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)” instantly attracted both fervent adherents and harsh critics upon its publication in 2009. In an article published last year, Skenazy argued that both parents and children reap important benefits from increasing childhood independence while the real risks, as opposed to the perceived ones, are minimal.

Debates about how to parent are often heated, especially now that the Internet can bring you in contact with parents who make choices radically different from your own. But it is worth taking care in asking whether a choice that is different from one you would make is simply a preference or is actually negligent. When children are in danger, intervention is necessary. But real danger and perceived danger can be hard to detangle.

Even Meitiv, while sharply criticizing how police handled the case, acknowledged that the problem was not police stopping to check on the children in the first place. After all, she writes, “that’s what we want officers to do if they have concerns about a child’s welfare.” But the Maryland case suggests that there needs to be a balance - one which allows enough latitude for parents to consider their individual child’s abilities.

The Meitivs, who remain under investigation but have not been charged, are not an isolated case. Last summer, a mother in South Carolina was arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s; she spent 17 days in jail. A father in the U.K. faced potential action from child protective services for letting his 7-year-old cross the road and walk 45 yards to the bus while he watched from across the street. In 2009, a mother in Mississippi was chastised by police for letting her 10-year-old walk to soccer practice.

The Columbus, Mississippi police chief, Joseph St. John, summarized the uncomfortable situation faced by law enforcement operating without clear guidance. “People will get upset if nothing happens and they feel we do too much, but if something actually had happened they’d be upset we hadn’t done enough,” St. John said. Washington Post columnist John Kelly made a similar observation about child protective services in the Meitiv case.

The balance between independence and safety is tricky, and one every parent must weigh. The general idea of what is too much independence and what is not enough varies from generation to generation. It will also always vary, to some degree, from family to family and even from child to child. The most extreme “free-range” parent and the most involved “helicopter” parent both want their children to be happy, safe and engaged. The question it is hard to ask without emotion is this: How can we identify when a child is in real danger while leaving space for parents to make individual choices?

I would make a different choice than the Meitivs did. But I am not convinced that this means the Meitiv children were in real danger. Although it will never be easy, it is important that we try to give reason a seat at the table when we discuss the difference between negligence and parenting with which we happen to disagree.

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