Why are we parenting as if our kids are in constant danger?

Home, home on the (free) range.
Home, home on the (free) range.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Ga
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It’s a national story gone worldwide: the Meitiv children, ages 10 and 6, were picked up by cops in Silver Spring, Maryland, for the offense of walking home from the park on a sunny afternoon.


For those unfamiliar with this most recent incident, Silver Spring officers picked up the kids at about 5pm on Apr. 12 and held them in a police cruiser for two hours, after first promising to drive them home—three blocks away. At about seven, the cops finally drove the confused kids 10 miles to a “Crisis Center.” In the meantime, the parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, were frantic: Where were their children?

They allege that no one bothered to call them—or allowed their kids to call—for hours. Even suspected criminals under arrest are generally allowed one phone call.

At 8pm, Child Protective Services finally let the Meitivs know they’d taken custody of the kids. And at 10:30pm, a mere five and a half hours after the kids were detained, the family was reunited.

Welcome to the land of the free—that is, unless authorities think you’re not parenting correctly.

The Meitivs are “Free-Range parents,” a species I have spent a long time championing and defending as founder of the book, blog and movement Free-Range Kids. Together, free range parents are dedicated to the idea that our kids deserve the same kind of independence we enjoyed as youngsters.

The Meitivs’s story makes me happy, outraged and then happy all over again. Happy, because the kids get some free time, outside. Outraged, because the parents have been labeled miscreants simply for not following them around every single second.

But then I am happy again, because the story has thrust this issue into the limelight, setting up a badly needed public debate.

There are plenty of people who think the Meitivs were wrong to trust a 10-year-old outside “alone” with his little sister. I just did a radio interview where the host asked, “But what if the 6-year-old has an asthma attack?” Earlier someone had asked, “What if someone tries to abduct the girl and the boy can’t fight him off?” I half-expected someone to say, “Lenore, what if there’s a tiger on the loose and it likes brother-sister combo platters? What then?”

I call this worst-first thinking: thinking up the worst possible scenario first and proceeding as if it’s likely to happen. This train of thought tends to rear its terrified head whenever anyone suggests that kids can be reasonably safe doing something on their own. For instance, a friend who told her mommy group that she’d left her 8-year-old at home for an hour while she went shopping was immediately castigated. “What if there’s a fire?” asked one mom in the room.

When my friend said her house has a fire alarm, another one of the moms said, “Well, what about an intruder?” When my friend said her house has a burglar alarm, a third mom suggested the boy might choke. This went on for a few more rounds, with the gist being, something bad could happen.

And to be fair, these paranoid moms had a point: something bad could happen. But if my friend had taken her son with her, he could have slipped on a grape at Wal-Mart and split open his head.

Somehow, Americans have been trained to think that the more tragedies they can imagine, the more caring they are. The free-range kids movement is just trying to bring back a little perspective that says: “Our kids are not in constant danger”—and we shouldn’t have to parent as if they are.

In the case of the Meitivs, today the kids are back home and the family is awaiting word from Child Protective Services as to their fate. Will the parents be found negligent? Abusive? Felonious for the crime of trusting their kids in an era when the crime rate is at a 50-year low, in a town recently voted—I kid you not—”The Most Caring Suburb in America“?

We await the state’s decision. And in the meantime, we are trying not to engage in worst-first thinking on the Meitivs’ behalf.