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Free-range vs. helicopter: What does it mean to be a good parent?

Parenting decisions that were commonplace a few decades ago are now cause for 911 calls and visits from a police officer or someone from child protective services.

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    Danielle Meitiv walks with her daughter Dvora (l.), age 6; Rosie Resnick, 9; and her son Rafi, 10, after school in Silver Spring, Md.
    SAMMY DALLAL/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES
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Allowing 6- and 10-year-old siblings to walk to the park alone. Leaving a 5-year-old in the car for a few minutes while running into the store. Encouraging an 11-year-old to walk by himself to a convenience store.

Parenting decisions that were once commonplace are now cause for 911 calls and visits from police or protective services.

As such stories gain media attention, they’ve sparked a wide-ranging debate on what constitutes neglect, when the state should intervene in parenting decisions, and whether the shifting trends toward helicopter parenting and constant supervision are actually in children’s best interest.

The increase in perpetual parental oversight also comes at the same time that child mortality and violent crime rates have dropped to near-record lows. While the actual risks are lower, say child-development experts, society’s perception of them has increased, fueled in part by social media and 24-hour news reports.

“We’re asking an awful lot of parents, without asking the question of how dangerous is it really,” says Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Washington.

Some say parents and child welfare workers shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to ensure maximum safety for every child. They see the current debate as a sideshow that has attracted the attention of middle-class parents but that ignores pressing issues, such as poverty, that cause real neglect. Some parents say the preoccupation with constant supervision for even older children is produced by unfounded fears, and argue that the result may be young adults who have little experience with decisionmaking and responsibility.

“At no other time in human history have people underestimated children’s competency as Americans do today,” says Danielle Meitiv, a Maryland mother who was investigated by child protective services (CPS) after she and her husband let their two children, ages 10 and 6, walk to a park on their own. “That’s how you learn. You don’t learn to handle responsibility without trying to handle responsibility. You don’t learn how to handle risk without trying to handle risk.”

The Meitivs have become figureheads in a movement sometimes called “free-range” parenting, a term coined from the book “Free Range Kids,” by Lenore Skenazy, who became famous after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the New York subway on his own. The Meitiv case likely attracted attention precisely because they were well-off parents who were making a parenting choice, not working parents lacking resources for child care – a more common scenario. 

But those cases also raise questions about how far the pendulum has shifted on what is considered neglect.

For Ms. Sandalow, the issue is less one of parenting norms, but of the ways in which poor mothers are pushed to the brink with few resources and little support. Welfare officials may judge those parents by shifting standards that assume even older children should always be supervised, she says.

Last summer, a South Carolina single mom let her 9-year-old play at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s. The mother was arrested, jailed, and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, and her daughter was removed from her custody (she has since been returned). A single mom in Florida was also arrested after letting her 7-year-old son walk to a park. In both cases, the children had cellphones and their parents knew where they were.

And in a harrowing case covered in The Atlantic, a widow left her four children, who ranged in age from 5 to 10, home alone for a couple of hours while she attended a community college course a mile away. A neighbor called the police, who took her children away. It took her two years to get them back.

“We assume that only parents that fit an arbitrary sociocultural mold can be fit parents. Those whose poverty or inadequate childcare options result in intervention don’t get much sympathy in our class-biased culture,” she told The Atlantic. “People seem more willing to spew vitriol than offer actual substantive assistance.”

In the two years out of her care, she said, her kids were separated from each other, were moved frequently, and were abused physically and sexually – “all in the name of protection.”

Child welfare statutes vary by state, and how they’re enforced can vary by county, agency, and individual. In most states, the age at which a child can be left unattended is a suggestion, not written in stone. And judges are the ultimate arbiters.

“I think judges succeed most of the time,” says John Myers, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and an expert on child abuse, who believes keeping those laws nebulous is usually the right thing. “Ultimately, some of those cases have to come into the court system and get resolved there. You hope you have an intelligent judge who can make a call that’s appropriate.”

But as parenting norms change and some laws do get more specific – particularly around minimum ages for no supervision – Ms. Skenazy and others say that those trying to eliminate danger are creating other risks for children. “Our children have the right to some unsupervised time with our permission, and we have the right to give it to them without being arrested,” she says.

Skenazy is fond of parsing statistics to counter the common refrain she hears that parents wish they could give children the freedom they enjoyed, if only the world weren’t so dangerous.

“Our entire culture is defined by fear,” she says. Anyone who suggests parents are “going overboard on the safety thing” is likely to be labeled a “heretic.” 

Childhood mortality in the United States is actually at an all-time low, and violent crime is at a 50-year low.

Between 1992 and 2011, rates of physical and sexual abuse against children fell by 56 percent and 63 percent, respectively. Missing person reports involving minors have fallen about 40 percent since 1997 – and of those, only about 0.1 percent fall into the category of a “stereotypical kidnapping” by a stranger (the vast majority are runaways). When the Department of Justice did an in-depth report on abducted children, it found that in 1999, the year it studied, there were just 115 abductions of that type.

Some people have argued that the declining risk statistics for children are, in part, a result of more-vigilant parenting. But FBI statistics show that all violent crime in the US fell by 48 percent between 1993 and 2012.

Hyper-vigilant parenting may also carry its own risks, in the form of less capable, less active children and teens.

Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College and the author of “Free to Learn,” says a cost of constant supervision has been young adults who feel a lack of agency and control in their own lives.

Since the 1950s, Dr. Gray says, longitudinal data have shown that rates of depression and anxiety for teenagers are between 5 and 8 times as great. At the same time, teens report feeling less in control of their lives or able to solve problems. Gray believes those changes are highly correlated with lack of free play and independence.

“How do people learn they have control in their lives? They learn it by having experience doing that,” he says. “If they’ve always got an adult around who’s telling them what to do, protecting them from every danger, and not giving them the opportunity to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, then of course they have no experience in self-control.” 

Gray compares the pickup ballgames he grew up playing – in which children learned to negotiate, cooperate, and create rules – with today’s adult-directed games, in which they just learn baseball.

A recent study out of Ryerson University in Toronto found that children with some degree of independence were nearly 20 percent more physically active than those under constant supervision – an important finding, given rising rates of childhood obesity.

“More often than not, our decisions about whether to let our children go out on their own at least some of the time involves a discussion about perceived risks,” says Raktim Mitra, an urban planning professor and the study’s lead author. “We wanted to put some information out about the measurable benefits as well.”

Not everyone thinks America is facing an epidemic of oversupervised children. “I think parents have always had different standards,” says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Crime is indeed down, Mr. Finkelhor says. But he thinks some of that may be attributable to kids taking fewer risks. And he notes that kids aren’t running away as much as they used to. “That’s a pretty good indicator that the overall level of parental controls is not too great, and kids aren’t experiencing too many constraints,” he says.

In Boulder, Colo., Diane Connolly lets her 8-year-old daughter walk the quarter-mile home from school alone, and will sometimes leave her home alone while she does errands.

“To me it seems self-evident that you need to look at what a kid is really capable of and let them do that,” Ms. Connolly says. “I don’t really understand where all the fear comes from. I feel strongly that if we teach our kids that the world is a scary place, that’s not healthy. Because the world is not a scary place. There are things you need to be careful about, but peril is not around the next corner.”

Parents determined to give their kids more freedom sometimes find themselves fighting against the current of mainstream culture.

In Maryland, the Meitivs’ case is ongoing. In February, they were found responsible for what the state calls “unsubstantiated” child neglect, which means there is some information indicating child neglect, but not enough for a definitive ruling. A file on the family will remain open for five years. In April, their children were again picked up by the police a few blocks from their house. This time, police kept the kids in their car for almost three hours, Meitiv says, without alerting the parents or allowing the children to call them, before bringing them to a crisis center.

The Meitivs, who expected their children home by 6 p.m., spent a frantic few hours searching for them. They were required to sign a “safety plan” to get custody and weren’t reunited with Rafi and Dvora until 10:30 at night. Through their lawyer, they said they plan to pursue legal action to protect their rights as parents. Meanwhile, county officials have reportedly asked that the Maryland attorney general issue guidance on whether CPS and police are correctly interpreting state law on unattended children.

Speaking before the most recent encounter, Meitiv says the investigation’s legacies included nightmares for her children and a fear of the police. “I had this primitive notion that I could stand between my kids and anybody that threatened them,” she says. “The only people trying to frighten or abduct my kids are the police and CPS.”

Meitiv still believes in independence, and says she’s seen how it helps her children grow. For example, once she allowed them to walk to the school bus on their own, morning stopped being a nightmare, as the children owned the responsibility of making it there on time.

“They feel trusted and empowered,” Meitiv says.

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