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'Free-range' parents deserve the freedom to parent

How can parents teach kids self-reliance when societal norms demand constant supervision?

There is no shortage of parenting philosophies and child-rearing movements. But the story of a Maryland couple investigated by Child Protective Services for allowing their two children to walk home alone from the park will, hopefully, start a much-needed conversation about the freedom to parent.

Last month Danielle and Alexander Meitiv allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to make the one-mile walk home from the park alone – as part of a larger effort to instill independence and self-reliance in their children. The kids were halfway home when they were picked up by the police, after someone called to report the unsupervised kids. Now the parents are under investigation for child neglect.  

This follows numerous stories from the last year when parents were arrested or investigated for letting their children go unsupervised in normal, safe conditions. 

I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco. When I was 7 or so, my best friend’s mom would run errands and leave us at the home alone. We must have been well-trained because we never got hurt or had any mishaps. Summers when I was 8, 9 and 10 were spent riding bikes to the store to buy candy and back to the school playground to eat it. My friends and I were gone for hours at a time. We didn’t have cellphones or pagers.  We had our parents’ trust – and the trust of the larger community that a couple of kids could roam the streets without harm.

So what happened? How did our expectations of child safety and parental supervision change so dramatically?  And how can we go back to the old days?

The free-range kid movement is one attempt. The Meitiv family is part of a growing number of parents who want to teach their kids self-reliance and independence by allowing them to do things on their own – like walk home. This may sound like common sense, but apparently giving children such freedom is so unusual these days that the Meitiv family had the kids carry laminated cards with parental contact info, saying, “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid.”

The Meitiv family is an extreme example of what can happen when parents push back against what has become a societal norm. But the fear of judgment and the fear of being labeled a bad parent can pressure parents into keeping their kids on a shorter leash than necessary, robbing children of the independence we experienced, and loved, when we were young.

Parents are caught in a bind – if you try to give your child space to explore and learn his or her limits, you run the risk that your neighbors, your friends, other parents, a passerby on the street all think you’re an absentee, lousy parent. And, if you’re really unlucky, they’ll call the police. That’s bad for parent and kids. We have to give parents the freedom to parent.  

For more opinions, follow me @kerrycavan

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