Few things can draw such an emotional reaction for a child at risk, real or perceived.
To a extent, this is as it needs to be. However, the emotions involved also indicate that such responses can cross into muddy grey areas where logical argument does not stand much chance.
I felt this pull between rational and emotional responses lately when I read about a family in Montgomery County, Maryland who have double clashed with local governments over parenting options. In both cases, neighbors reported seeing the kids walking; both times, the authorities took the children into custody and subsequently involved child services.
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv have contended that they should be permitted to ascertain the risks and benefits of offering their children measured amounts of liberty. In an opinion column for The Washington Post after the first episode, Danielle Meitiv wrote, “Not everybody is comfortable with the concept of young kids being outside without adult supervision. [… ] We believe, however, that giving them a chance to learn how to earn their way in the world independently is the perfect way to prepare them for adulthood – and it’s safe for them to do so.” (1)
As a parent, I can easily comprehend both sides of the incident. Police and child protective services might have gone too far, but it’s also difficult to envision myself at the Meitivs’ place. While Meitiv and others who share her opinion have rightly pointed out that stranger abduction is extremely rare, you never want your family to function as 1 instance in a thousand, either.
The expression “free-range parenting” was popularized by Lenore Skenazy, who endured wide criticism for publicly saying that she’d allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the nyc subway alone. “Free-Range Kids: How to Boost Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Stress)” instantly attracted equally fervent adherents and harsh critics upon its publication in 2009. Skenazy continues to assert that both parents and kids reap significant benefits from increasing youth independence while the real dangers, rather than the perceived ones, are minimal.
Nonetheless, it’s worth taking care in inquiring if it’s the choice that’s different from one you’d make is merely a preference or is really negligent. When kids are at risk, intervention is essential. But real threat and perceived threat can be tough to detangle.
Even Meitiv, while harshly criticizing how authorities handled the case, acknowledged that the problem wasn’t police stopping to check on the kids in the first location. (1) However, the Maryland case indicates that there has to be a balance – one that allows enough latitude for parents to think about their individual child’s skills.
The Meitivs aren’t an isolated case. A dad in the U.K. confronted potential action from child protective services for allowing his 7-year-old cross the street and walk 45 yards into the bus while he watched from across the street. In 2009, a mother in Mississippi was chastised by authorities for allowing her 10-year-old walk to football practice.
The Columbus, Mississippi police chief, Joseph St. John, outlined the embarrassing situation faced by law enforcement working without clear guidance. “People will get angry if nothing happens and they believe we do a great deal, but when something really had happened they would be upset we had not done enough,” St. John said.
The balance between liberty and security is catchy, and one every parent needs to weigh. The general idea about what’s too much liberty and what isn’t enough changes from generation to generation. Additionally, it will always change, to a extent, from family to family as well as from child to child. The most extreme “free-range” parent and also the most involved “helicopter” parent both desire their kids to be happy, secure and engaged. The question it’s not easy to inquire without emotion is this: How do we identify when a child is in actual danger when leaving space for parents to make individual decisions?
I’d make a different decision than the Meitivs did. But I am not convinced that this implies that the Meitiv kids were in actual danger. Even though it’ll never be easy, it’s necessary that we attempt to give reason a chair at the table once we talk about the difference between parenting and negligence with which we happen to disagree.