An American couple is under investigation for child neglect this week after allowing their kids, ages 6 and 10, to walk together, but without adults, to their neighbourhood playgrounds.
“The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood,” mother Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post.
“I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.”
Danielle, who grew up in the 1970s in New York City and was allowed to roam freely along with other neighbourhood kids, told WUSA9, “The only thing that’s changed between then and now is our fear.”
But officials disagree. In late December, police picked up the kids, Rafi and Dvora, walking just half a block from home after being alerted by an observer.
Six cop cars soon showed up at the family’s house, and the incident spurred Child Protective Services to investigate Danielle and her husband Alexander for child neglect.
CPS officials visited the parents at home and also interviewed the children at school without their parents’ knowledge or consent.
CPS spokesperson Mary Anderson told Yahoo US Parenting she could not comment on the specifics of the case, but explained that CPS is bound by law to “follow up on every complaint” it receives, using the Maryland Unattended Children Law for guidance to determine whether a parent “has provided proper care and supervision.”
But the law doesn’t address the outdoors, stating that a child under 8 must not be without someone 13 or older while “confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle.”
Danielle, a climate-science consultant and fiction writer, and Alexander, a physicist at the National Institutes for Health, could not be reached by Yahoo Parenting. But Danielle recently told Reason via email that she and her husband have been left “frightened and confused” by the situation.
She added, “We are good parents, educated professionals, and our children are happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and academically successful. As difficult as it is for us to believe, all of these events occurred as the result of allowing our children to walk along public streets in the middle of the afternoon without our supervision.
My husband grew up in the former Soviet Union. Now he wonders if we have to just go along with whatever the authorities want us to do. I keep reminding him that we have rights in this country and that neither the police nor the bureaucrats can arbitrarily dismiss them.”
The Meitivs consider themselves “free-range parents,” basing some of their parenting philosophy on the book “Free-Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy (author of the Reason article), Danielle contacted Skenazy for advice and help with publicity in December.
“I agree that sunshine is a great thing when something is going on in the shadows,” Skenazy, whose new reality show “World’s Worst Mom” premiers on Discovery Life on Jan. 22, tells Yahoo Parenting.
She has a clear take on the situation — and many others like it, including a Texas mom investigated by child protective services after allowing her 6-year-old to play alone across the street from home in September, a Florida mom arrested for allowing her 7-year-old to walk to the park alone in August, and a South Carolina mom arrested for letting her 9-year-old play alone in a park in July.
“We believe our children are in constant danger,” Skenazy says. “Once you believe that, then seeing a child unsupervised for any amount of time…will look like negligence, even when it’s absolutely rational and loving, as it is [with the Meitivs].”
She blames the cultural shift on “a 24-7 media cycle has to appall and scare us” and “a marketplace that’s bent on scaring us,” using major fears like “kidnapping” and “kids not getting into Harvard” to sell parents just about anything.
A much-buzzed-about article in the Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid,” touched on many of these issues in April, noting, “It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s — walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap — are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting.”
Tim Gill, the UK-based author of “Rethinking Childhood,” finds this attitude worrisome. “The basic danger is that by overprotecting children, we leave them less safe — because we deprive them of the very experiences that will build their confidence and help them learn how to deal with everyday challenges as they grow up,” he tells Yahoo Parenting in an email.
He agrees with Skenazy that scaremongering is largely to blame (despite crime stats showing that children are safer than they’ve ever been), along with fear of lawsuits and a “zero risk” mindset, or a belief that “it’s our job to protect children at all costs rather than to help them to be resilient.” That belief has a particularly strong hold in the U.S., he says, noting that, in other countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, it’s practically the opposite.
“I’ve been told that in Switzerland,” says Gill, “parents are judged badly if they don't let their children walk to kindergarten (yes, kindergarten) on their own.”