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Is “Free-Range Parenting” Bad?

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 [1] 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 [2]:

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 [3],” 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 [4]. “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 [5], “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 [6] 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?”

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Is “Free-Range Parenting” Bad?"

#1 Comment By cka2nd On March 4, 2015 @ 12:48 am

“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.”

The above sounds like any big city at any time. In 1970’s Manhattan, my younger brother and I took the public bus to school across town from the time I was 9 years old. And folks thought nothing of the fact if they saw me running around the park by myself. The biggest danger of non-helicopter parenting in those days was probably being introduced to drugs if you got to hang out with the neighborhood’s cool kids.

“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.”

Not to mention the fear of being accused of something untoward if you do approach a child who appears to be lost or is misbehaving.

#2 Comment By Richard W. Bray On March 4, 2015 @ 2:49 am

It’s a bygone time (but not that long ago) when we actually encouraged kids to go outside and play all by themselves.

[7]

#3 Comment By mightypeon On March 4, 2015 @ 5:12 am

Eh, in East Germany I got a key to my families flat when I was 7.

In retrospect, I did notice that western german kids get their keys later then east german kids.

Was a major status symbol to not have to wait for mum to pick me up from school.

Children walking to and from Kindergarten on their own was, in the GDR, not unheard of either.

#4 Comment By ArgleBargleZarg On March 4, 2015 @ 8:27 am

Cka2nd brings up a great point: not only are we fearful of what a stranger might do to our kid (and I think a huge part of this is that today’s parents were brought up on the message of “stranger danger”) but strangers are terrified of what parents might do to them–at best they’ll receive a “don’t tell me how to raise my kid!” if they personally intervene in a situation that looks amiss. And I would wager that the people who call the police in these situations aren’t busybodies who are eager to see families broken up, just well-meaning citizens who just want to make sure everything’s okay without personally interfering in someone else’s family. The road to hell and all that.

We live not in terror of the state, but in terror of civilians bringing the state into situations that used to be handled on the individual level. Fear of “Little Brother,” not Big Brother.

Also, think about what else happened to the current generation of parents: taught as children to beware of strangers, but to always trust authority figures, just as they reached adulthood, the Catholic sex abuse scandal hit.

#5 Comment By Matt On March 4, 2015 @ 10:47 am

Few parents are aware that, as the Meitivs themselves note, “Abductions are extremely rare” in America today.

Well that’s the security paradox, isn’t it? Abductions are extremely rare, but everyone is in the 1% of something, and if your children are the ones who are kidnapped while walking to or from the park something tells me “Abductions are extremely rare” isn’t going to be very comforting. I mean even something like burglary is very rare, but everyone locks their doors regardless.

[ Matt, this is a good point, and I think probably the best argument against “free-range parenting.” – GO ]

#6 Comment By Johann On March 4, 2015 @ 11:07 am

Kids can still walk all around small town ND pretty much all hours of the day and night. But nation-wide, I think that’s pretty rare. It depends where you are living.

#7 Comment By ArgleBargleZarg On March 4, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

Here’s an observation: 30 years ago, there were always kids riding their bikes in the streets and shooting hoops in the basketball courts. Now it’s men in their 30s and 40s who you see riding their bikes in the streets and shooting hoops in the basketball courts.

Parents used to kick their kids out of the house so they could have some time alone. Now the parents lock the kids in the house while they go outside to get some time alone.

#8 Comment By JonF On March 4, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

Re: Matt, this is a good point, and I think probably the best argument against “free-range parenting.”

Kids are many time more likely to be injured in an auto accident than abducted by a stranger (or even a relative). Statistically in most areas it’s safer for kids to walk a reasonable distance than to be driven.

#9 Comment By sglover On March 4, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

@Matt — No, yours isn’t a good point. In any given day, probably everybody does something that has a small probability of catastrophe. Driving a car is the most obvious example, but there are legions of others whose number is limited only by one’s imagination.

The papers are full of stories about people who’ve taken live under this uninformed neurosis: The bedwetting hysterics who can’t even go to a shopping center or gas station without a pistol. They evidently live in dread of those people, who are scheming every day. The neurotics make the papers when they let their fears take over, and kill whoever happened to trip their neural circuits.

The Meitivs are a welcome, sane contrast to this kind of mental illness. They are healthy and wise enough to realize that
the central feature of these nameless lurking horrors is howvery, very, very unlikely they are.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 4, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

“Abductions are extremely rare” isn’t going to be very comforting. I mean even something like burglary is very rare, but everyone locks their doors regardless.”

This is a parent’s choice. We lock our doors, well that depends on what neighborhood one lives in. And again, that is a choice. No one gets arrested for not locking their doors. Nor should we punish people for being at the short end of someone else’s criminal behavior.

There is another important angle here. Communal accountability. When I see a child I think is at risk of something, there was a time when we checked on that child. Waling to the park takng the subway are not dangerous activities by definition or at least the are t be accounted by situational environmens as opposed to some defacto: kids alone=neglect.

So some parent tells me to mind my bsiness –I have still execised my civic responsibility to community. I have sent a secondary or perhaps a primary message. Children, our not just the future of parents and family but the rest of us as well.

And they are entitled to walk, play, run unmolested by those of ill intent.

I may have my parameters of safe keeping and may even add to the community voice to help shape them. But ultimately, a parent ms choose for their child. Neithe myself, or the state are a substitute for that.

I am troubled that this even has a categorical name. Having walked to schools as far as several miles, when I missed the bus or wanted to hang with friends closer to school. . . it sounds pecuiar.

In times considered ore dangerous and laced with more hardship, I can remember no parental tale of their youth than having to walk five miles for everything with no but ther feet for assistance.

I find the above comment part of the problem in pushing scenarios to the front of our methods of living.

i.e. ISIS at my door.

#11 Comment By ARM On March 4, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

The 1% argument Matt makes is common, but no, it’s not a good argument. Or rather, if a child walking to the park truly ran a 1% risk of being abducted, it might be a good argument. A 1% risk is significant. But in fact, the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger (as opposed to a non-custodial parent, a whole different issue) is vanishingly, astronomically unlikely.

And no, we shouldn’t rearrange our lives and sacrifice real goods like a child’s freedom to play and discover the world to avert hazards so unlikely. Do you stop your child from sleeping in a bed because some kids die falling out of bed? Or perhaps more to the point, do you refrain from driving him anywhere in your car – which is the most common cause of death for children in America?

#12 Comment By Annie On March 4, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

Matt, I see your point, but it’s the risk-calculus that’s interesting here. Thousands of kids die in car accidents – why aren’t their parents found guilty of neglect by putting them in a dangerous situation?

Some people say walking a mile alone is unsafe. Others say keeping a child house-bound, preventing them from learning responsibility and slowly integrating freedom into their lives is also unsafe. Some say driving is necessary. Others say, why can’t we build communities that don’t require the use of dangerous machines that can easily kill?

Why is the grief of those in the 1% of a particular tragedy used to punish everyone else (and it is a punishment) while the grief of those in a different 1% is seen as unavoidable?

#13 Comment By San Fernando Curt On March 4, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

One factor overlooked here is the ‘litigation effect’. If it weren’t for attorneys filing suit against institutions for all infraction real and mostly imagined, much of this ‘helicopter governing’ wouldn’t exist. If a child goes missing today, any agency that conceivably could have prevented the abduction (even though odds are a billion to one) finds itself defendant in a ‘brass ring’ lawsuit.

#14 Comment By stef On March 5, 2015 @ 8:32 am

@ArgleBargleZarg: 30 years ago, there were always kids riding their bikes in the streets and shooting hoops in the basketball courts. Now it’s men in their 30s and 40s who you see riding their bikes in the streets and shooting hoops in the basketball courts.

This is the key. “Free-range parenting” is great *only* if everybody else is doing it. Then you have critical masses of kids running around neighborhoods. There’s safety in numbers.

When you have one child alone, or a 10 year old with say a 4 or 6 year old, they look like a “target.” They might not objectively *be* a target. But they look like one, to the nosy neighbor sitting at home with nothing to do but watch crime docudramas or listen to hysterical talk radio.

I think there’s also an unspoken racial issue here. When I drive through African-American neighborhoods in my metro area, I always see kids running around the streets, between 6 and 12 years old. Ditto for Hispanic neighborhoods I’ve been in, in CA.

If African-American kids didn’t walk to school without adults (where I live), they wouldn’t get to school. My guess is that nobody is calling the cops on these kids; that police calls like in the articles are another form of “missing pretty-white-girl syndrome.”

#15 Comment By Matt On March 5, 2015 @ 9:53 am

But in fact, the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger (as opposed to a non-custodial parent, a whole different issue) is vanishingly, astronomically unlikely.

Well there are two things to say about that. First, one of the reasons it is extremely unlikely is probably the climate of increased parental vigilance. The second is that while a child walking alone might have a very low chance of being kidnapped, a child walking with their parents has an effectively zero chance of being kidnapped. And to be honest, I can’t really label a parent a “bed wetting hysteric” for taking the latter path.

Also, cars are not a good counter example. For one, cars are necessary for life whereas walking alone isn’t. Two, we take all kinds of security measures to minimize the result of injuries or worse from car accidents. There’s no “free range driving” that makes an ideological point of riding without seatbelts.

In a way this whole thing parallels the vaccination debate. There’s a vanishingly small chance to actually die from the measles, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for vaccinating against it. Everyone is in some 1%, or even some 0.1%.

#16 Comment By elaine On March 5, 2015 @ 10:31 am

As a white mother of two children ages 10 and 14 living in suburbia. I remember the 70’s. Strength was in the numbers. Most of us “children” roamed together. That was the old days. Currently the children in my “nice” neighborhood who hang out at the park and roam the streets are troubled” children who IMO deserve better care. Most of them have issues at school or are on drugs. I want my children safe and try to do my best to keep my kids out of trouble and focused on school. Currently my children stay out of trouble are in honor classes at school and not on drugs. I believe we live in a different time now. Not better a time or a happier time. When my children are 18, my hope is a free range of colleges will accept them and or my children will be finally free to choose their destiny. For now technology is considered freedom IMO.

#17 Comment By ArgleBargleZarg On March 5, 2015 @ 11:32 am

I think maybe what Matt was getting at is that there almost needs to be a baseline level of actual danger for people to feel safe going about their lives. If it’s not uncommon for a kid to come home with a black eye because of a schoolyard fight, you think “Well, kids are kids and these things happen.”

But the more we ratchet down security, the more unlikely these things are, the more terrifying the mere possibility of something happening becomes. Now the response to the black eye is “These things don’t just happen! The bully who punched my kid is a menace and needs to be put on anti-psychotics!”

You know what I mean? When all kinds of bad things of varying levels of severity actually happen to kids–skinned knees, broken bones, schoolyard fights, what have you–you can gauge the level of risk a given activity has. Now that we’ve created this world where nothing bad can happen to kids, ever; and where bullies, rather than being reprimanded or eventually getting their comeuppance are instead either medicated or thrown in jail; the bad things that do happen to kids, while rare, tend to be of the freakish, catastrophic variety.

Without a baseline against which to judge, parents’ imaginations run wild.

#18 Comment By ARM On March 5, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

Matt, you say: ” First, one of the reasons it [abduction] is extremely unlikely is probably the climate of increased parental vigilance.” What are you basing this claim on? Isn’t it equally possible that the reason is that, contrary to popular belief, our neighborhoods are actually not crammed with would-be child abductors just waiting their chance?

Abduction was never common in the first place, and just about every category of violent crime, against adults as well as children, has been falling steadily for the last few decades. Your child has about the same chance of being abducted and killed by a stranger as by being struck by lightning.

And no, I don’t think the reasoning “If it eliminates a risk, however remote, it’s a good idea” is good reasoning. Like I said, on the same grounds, you might as well get rid of the furniture in your house because your kid could fall off it, or make him wear a helmet at all times because kids fall down the stairs. It’s rational to decide how remote a risk is before sacrificing real goods to try to prevent it. It’s irrational to obsess about far-out risks while ignoring likely ones – such as driving. And I got news for you on that: people wearing seatbelts can and do die in car crashes.

#19 Comment By Annie On March 5, 2015 @ 8:58 pm

No, Matt, cars are not essential for life. Some parts of society have made themselves dependent on them, but their addiction was not inherent. Cars did not come into being with human life. There are other ways; saying there are not is a lack of willpower or imagination. Either are fine, but let’s not pretend that we’re not making a sacrifice in safety for our convenience.

#20 Comment By Elle On March 5, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

Matt says “For one, cars are necessary for life whereas walking alone isn’t.”

Well, lots of people get around by walking, or cycling. Walking is very healthy for the body, and for the mind (car driving is terrible for both, as inactivity is a great reducer of health, now believed to be worse than smoking, and causes stress due to maintenance costs, road rage, parking problems and breakdowns) – walking reduces the pollution that causes asthma and cancer (driving is the cause of pollution). So actually, I think walking is necessary for life, and yes, lots of people do walk to work, or school.

As for the equivalent to seatbelts and safety equipment, it is teaching kids to take care of themselves. Free Range parents don’t just send their kids out with any instructions. If you read Lenore Skenazy’s blog (which I do often) you will find stories in which kids who walk alone or with siblings are often far better able to take care of themselves in unexpected situations than those kids who are kept “safe from harm” in front of video games (also not necessary for life) and driven around everywhere they go. The kids of today are being trained to believe that motion and travel without the faculty of one’s bodily abilities is impossible, or at least – completely insane. I find it the opposite of life, frankly, and that’s why I try to walk with my family as much as I can. Instead of driving, which I find generally to be slow death, if convenient at times -but in the city, not always that convenient actually.

#21 Comment By sglover On March 6, 2015 @ 10:35 am

Matt decides to up the ante:

First, one of the reasons it is extremely unlikely is probably the climate of increased parental vigilance.

If you’re going to make things up, it’d be more entertaining if you brought sunspots into it.

The “reason” that child abduction is extremely unlikely is that the kind of person interested in abducting children is extremely rare. You won’t know this if your lens on the world is TeeVee — which it is for far too many Americans, especially the bedwetting hysterics.

Also, cars are not a good counter example. For one, cars are necessary for life whereas walking alone isn’t.

Now that is a bizarre statement. But unfortunately, given how many “communities” are built these days, there’s truth in it. Still, I think that if I wanted to use your logic, I’d bring up the “epidemic” of carjackings, which everybody knows happen all the time. And then I’d insist that police detain people driving alone — for their own “safety”, of course. Because if one life is saved… etc.

#22 Comment By A.K. On March 9, 2015 @ 11:20 am

“In a way this whole thing parallels the vaccination debate. There’s a vanishingly small chance to actually die from the measles, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for vaccinating against it. Everyone is in some 1%, or even some 0.1%.”

Way to undermine parents who want to let their ten year olds play in a park by themselves for an hour.

No, this is not actually a parallel argument unless you have no idea of how vaccinations actually work. The more people don’t vaccinate, the more people get the measles, the more people die. Greece thought it had eliminated malaria until they cut back on providing free vaccines as part of its austerity measures and it came back. These diseases can always come back and when and if they do they will kill people, no matter how long you have gone without a measles epidemic if enough people don’t vaccinate it will absolutely come back.

On the other hand the risks of your kid getting kidnapped by a stranger does not change, it has always been, still is, and will continue to be vanishingly small in spite of small largely irrelevant risk factors like letting your kid walk to and from school on their own.

#23 Comment By ThomasH On March 9, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

The parents should move to Washington. I don’t think our police department will intervene the way the Montgomery County officers did.

#24 Comment By CatherineNY On April 25, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

“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.” There are rational reasons. When I was a child in the late 50s and early 60s, and we did wander our neighborhood, there was a mother at home in every house of our neighborhood. Now, children would be wandering past empty houses for the most part during the day. That is a very rational reason not to let ten and six year olds walk for miles on their own.

#25 Comment By Bill Samuel On April 25, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

I’m not sure the Meitivs are as much outliers as they are portrayed. I think a lot of children in that age group are not infrequently out of sight of their parents or any other adult assigned to watch them. I think that in many neighborhoods in Montgomery County this family would not have been reported to the authorities. The presence of people in their neighborhood who react that way may not be a norm. It may be an outlier.

#26 Comment By AndyG On April 25, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

I’d have to agree- Matt’s point is NOT valid.
For instance, my twins happened to be in that small percentage of infants that get a life threatening reaction to MMR.
Does that mean people shouldn’t vaccinate their kids?
The elephant in the room is, yes, rare things happen rarely, and they can be tragic. We have to keep open minds about what an acceptable level of risk is.
NOT allowing your kids to become alert to danger and learn to solve problems is one of the most hazardous things a parent can do.