Is "Free Ranging" Your Kids a Right?

IS FREERANGEA RIGHT_Free range parenting has been in the news a lot lately, especially the story of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, scientists and parents of two, who have come under fire (and under the eye of Child Protective Services) for allowing their children to walk around their neighborhood unsupervised. You may have first heard of them in December when police picked up their two children, Rafi, 10, and Dzora, 6, while walking home from a park in Maryland. The Meitivs say they gave a lot of thought as to whether or not their children were ready to walk home alone and decided that they were ready. The Montgomery County Police gave the kids a stern warning about walking alone, put them in the squad car and drove them home. Maryland Child Protective Services then accused the Meitivs of neglect, saying unless they committed to a safety plan, the kids would have to go into foster homes. In Silver Spring, where the family is from, leaving anyone under age 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect. And in March, the couple was found guilty of neglect by Child Protective Services. The non-criminal charge means the CPS keeps a file on the family for at least 5 years.

This of course got me thinking. Under the age of 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect? Really? That seems a bit extreme, no? And let's not even get into the idea of the Child Protective Services resources that were used for a case where the kids were from a safe home that could have been used to help children in an actually dangerous environment.

Then again last week the kids were taken into custody when someone saw them playing in a park and called 911. They were picked up by police four-tenths of a mile away from home. The kids were taken to Child Protective Services and their parents were not contacted until hours later. Danielle Meitiv explained in a post on Facebook:

The police coerced our children into the back of a patrol car, telling them they would drive them home. They kept the kids trapped there for three hours, without notifying us, before dropping them at the Crisis Center, and holding them there without dinner for another two and a half hours. We finally got home at 11pm and the kids slept in our room because we were all exhausted and terrified.

I wrote about Free Range Parenting two years ago where I said:

In 2008, when Lenore Skenazy wrote a column for The New York Sun about letting her then nine-year-old son ride the subway home alone in New York, she was swiftly called “the worst mom in America.” But as she points out in her book Free-Range Kids, kids are actually safer than they’ve ever been. In the United States, the FBI estimates that a child is 25 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a predator. There is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of a child being abducted. One in ONE POINT FIVE MILLION. But those are the stories we hear about, those are the stories that stay with us, that feed into our paranoia. Those are the stories that make us keep the kids in our sight at all times. The stories that prevent them from riding their bikes to their friend’s house, that prevent us from loosening our white knuckled grip on what we think we are controlling.

The truth is, kids are actually safer these days than they were years ago, statistically speaking. So why are police cracking down on kids walking home from a park alone, and what does this teach our children about whether or not they are capable of taking care of themselves? One of the responsibilities as a parent is to teach your child how to be independent, so what message does it send when even the police are saying they are incapable of walking 4/10ths of a mile to their house? What does it teach parents? If you let your children walk to the park by themselves when you feel that they are ready to your children could be taken away from you because of "neglect"?

And if kids actually are safer from these perceived threats and predators than we think, why do we continue to "protect" them? I will be honest with you, we live in a really safe neighborhood full of families and kids. I see kids on their bikes with no adults in sight all the time, and I am always keeping an eye out for them, and eventually will let my kids ride bikes alone. Does it freak me out? Yes. If we lived near enough to a park, would I let my 8 year old walk home alone or with friends? I might. But I would also worry that other parents might have an issue with it and call the police out of concern for their well being. And that's where the line really gets drawn. I think parents who have called the cops on this family maybe did actually do it out of concern, albeit a misplaced concern, and I can't place blame on them for that. I guess what I want to place blame on (if we need to blame) is the overall misconception that our children are better off being protected by us in instances like this, rather than looking at it as building their independence, and making them stronger and more resilient people.

I'm interested in what you think about this topic. Do you think the police were right in bringing the Meitivs children into custody, or do you think the Meitivs have a right to raise their children the way they see fit? Even if you maybe wouldn't let your kids walk home alone, if they think it is safe, is that their call? Should that be their call? Let's say you were at the park, and you saw a 10 year old and a 6 year old there alone. What would you do? If they looked content and happy, safe, clean, well fed, would you call the cops if you didn't see parents nearby? Would you approach them and ask them if they were okay?

Of course in any case there is a judgment call, but where do we draw the line? Do we want to be living in a society where we call the cops on each other when we see kids out bike riding? I certainly don't. But again, it certainly is a nuanced issue, not a black and white one and it is difficult to see where to draw the line, but I think it's an important dialogue to have as parents. I want my kids to grow up to be strong, independent individuals who feel empowered to make their own decisions, not to be always looking to me, especially as they become teenagers. What do you think?