Have you ever let your kids play in the yard unsupervised, or walk alone to a nearby park? Such activities may in fact be “unsubstantiated child neglect,” according to the Montgomery County Child Protective Services. For the past two months, CPS has been investigating a Maryland couple  who decided to let their 10-year-old and six-year-old walk a mile from the local park to their home—unaccompanied. That’s when the police picked up their children. The Washington Post reports :
The Meitivs said they would not have allowed the one-mile outing from Woodside Park to their home if they did not feel their children were up to it. The siblings made it halfway before police stopped them. …
The Meitivs’ case has produced strong reactions about what constitutes responsible parenting, how safe children really are and whether the government overstepped its role.
The Meitivs, both scientists by training, embrace a “free-range” philosophy of parenting, believing that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to make choices, build independence and progressively experience the world on their own.
Lenore Skenazy, a New York journalist who wrote the article “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone ,” told the Post, “The go-to narrative in the last 20 or 30 years for parents was, ‘Take your eyes off your kid for even a second and he’ll be snatched.’ What the Meitiv case did was pivot the story to: ‘Give your kid one second of freedom and the government will arrest you.’”
“The Meitivs, as it happens, are ‘free-range parents’ who have a very coherent philosophy about giving children more independence,” Hannah Rosin wrote yesterday for Slate . “They had let their children walk home alone that day only after practicing and felt the kids were ready. What they learned from the latest CPS decision, Danielle Meitiv wrote me, is that ‘teaching independence clearly IS a crime.'”
I don’t know if Meitiv is completely correct, however. Our culture champions individualism and independence. Perhaps the larger lesson here is that teaching trust is a crime.
First, there’s the Internet: for parents, it’s a giant WebMD of fearful kidnappings and potential mishaps. It doesn’t matter whether or not the kidnappings, disappearances, or assaults happened in our backyard—they happened. And they could happen to us.
Few parents are aware that, as the Meitivs themselves note , “Abductions are extremely rare” in America today. Violent crime has “fallen dramatically” since the 1990s, and is currently close to 1960s levels—a time when “children stayed out for hours, slept in backyard tents and wandered their neighborhoods,” the Post reports. “These are things we all did on our own, and now we don’t let our children do, and there is no real or rational reason except we’re fearful,” Skenazy says.
Part of this fear and distrust likely stems from the mobility that has broken down communal trust and rapport—we don’t know who lives next door, let alone two blocks away. Our communities are strange and unknown places.
There was a time when the free-range roaming of children was an assumed practice, and parents each took responsibility to patrol and protect their corner of the neighborhood. If they saw an unaccompanied child, they would keep an eye on them, to make sure they were safe. If they suspected inattentiveness on the parents’ part, they may reach out to the child’s parent(s) with their concerns.
But recent cases have demonstrated  that, in today’s world, concerned parents jump first to the State to care for the situation, rather than exercising any sort of personal involvement. This further demonstrates the breakdown of modern American community: without a sense of communal closeness or responsibility, we act as bystanders rather than as stewards.
You see, this isn’t the first time the Meitiv family has been contacted by Maryland CPS. In late October, Danielle Meitiv “picked up her son and daughter from the bus stop after school and left her children playing in a small park a block away from the family’s home,” the Post reports. “She believes a neighbor reported seeing the children unsupervised. Several days later, she got a visit from Child Protective Services.”
Though that case was closed without any serious repercussions, it further demonstrates the fact that the Meitivs are outliers: parents willing to trust not only their children, but the goodwill of the people surrounding them.
It has put their family in a difficult spot. As Rosin notes, the family believes children should be free to roam and learn—”But they no doubt believe even more strongly that they don’t want to be at any risk of having their children taken away from them for a second charge of neglect. Why on earth should the state have any right to put them in that predicament?”