Let Parents Practice Fear-Free Parenting
Maybe the controversy over "free-range parenting" is a worthy public debate about keeping kids safe. Maybe it's a form of anti-feminism in which mothers are expected to monitor their children 24/7. Maybe it's just fear-mongering that induces people to see nonexistent bogeymen around every corner.
No matter how you characterize the parenting style in which children are allowed to play and walk alone in their neighborhoods, criminalizing it is the wrong response.
It happened one Sunday last month in Silver Spring, Md., when police picked up a brother and sister, 6 and 10 years old, who were walking home from a park about a mile from their house. It was the second time in four months that police had intervened in the parenting decisions of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv.
Back in December, having been alerted by a citizen concerned that the kids were unsupervised, police picked them up, drove them home and notified Child Protective Services. CPS started a file.
When it happened last month, police took the children to CPS.
The Meitivs got a letter in February from CPS saying they had been found responsible for "unsubstantiated neglect," meaning there was insufficient or contradictory information that prevented investigators from drawing a conclusion.
These are not inattentive parents. The Meitivs made a conscious decision to allow their children to play and walk alone in their neighborhood so they could learn self-reliance and responsibility. Danielle Meitiv is a climate-science consultant, and her husband is a physicist at the National Institutes of Health.
They believe in "free-range parenting," an unfortunate name for what used to be standard operating procedure. Now it's a Movement, one committed to rolling back the excesses of so-called "helicopter parents" who hover over their kids. Free-range believers want their children to do things like learn to navigate public transportation by themselves, walk to and from school alone and set up lemonade stands.
It was founded by Lenore Skenazy.
Some just call this old-fashioned. Who knew that one day it would be controversial to let kids roam the neighborhood in the summer, walk to and from school during the school year and ride bikes to the pool?
The Meitivs aren't the only parents who've been in trouble for not supervising every moment of their children's lives. A 35-year-old mother of two in Florida was arrested last year for letting her 7-year-old son walk about a half-mile from home to a park to play.
Another mother, 38, in Austin, Texas, was investigated for neglect after her children, 8 and 6, walked the dog one day last August. A month before that, a 46-year-old mother in South Carolina was arrested and jailed for 17 days after leaving her 9-year-old daughter unsupervised in a park while she went to work.
St. Louisans know there can be reality behind the fear. It's rare, but it happens. Consider the abduction of Shawn Hornbeck of Richwoods, in 2002 at age 11. He was held captive for more than four years before being found at his kidnapper's apartment in Kirkwood.
All the overprotective parenting in the world won't prevent some bad things from happening. Generally, parents should have the freedom to decide when they can leave their children alone and how to teach them important life skills.
Some states regulate how old a child must be before staying home alone. In Illinois, that age is 14. Missouri has no legal age limit. Dr. Bob Wilmott, chief of pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, says children should know basic safety rules, have quick access to an adult if needed and know to call 911 in an emergency. Similar common-sense strategies should be applied to kids being outside alone.
Parents should make these decisions, not the police or child services authorities.
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