When I first heard the phrase “free-range kids” I thought it was a joke. I kept thinking about chickens.
It was no joke, however, when a 10-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister were picked up by Maryland police after a 911 call, held for 51/2 hours before their parents could see them, and finally released under a signed paper and a threat of future government action.
What was the kids’ crime? Throwing rocks? Beating up schoolmates? Spraying graffiti?
No. Walking home from a park.
“Two kids that are unaccompanied and they’ve been walking around for about 20 minutes,” said the man who made the 911 call.
That call led to police, a pickup, Child Protective Services and a national news story. There is now also a threatened lawsuit by the kids’ parents, Danielle and Sasha Meitiv, who dare to think letting your children explore the world outside is important. Critics call them wacky, dangerous and irresponsible enough to lose their kids.
As I’ve written before, thank the Lord I didn’t grow up today. I’d be visiting my parents in a jail cell.
The horrors of protection
Forget about the “free-range parenting” thing, a movement created by a New York journalist named Lenore Skenazy and apparently practiced by the Meitivs. When you categorize things like this, you make them easier to scoff at (“crazy liberals,” “dumb hippies”) and this is not about a movement.
It’s about common sense.
What happened with the Meitivs in Silver Spring, Md., has happened all over the country. A South Carolina woman went to jail for letting her 9-year-old play alone in a park. A Florida woman was arrested and charged with neglect because her 7-year-old was alone in a playground.
You’ve seen these stories. There’s always a neighbor who makes a “concerned” call. I know most folks who dial 911 don’t mean any harm.
But they still can create it. Being picked up by police and held by CPS is a scary, sometimes nightmarish experience. Police stations and social services agencies are not child-friendly places. Crying kids asking strangers for their parents are often told nothing.
Parents, meanwhile, are terrified. The Meitivs told the media that they weren’t even called by the authorities until hours after their kids were picked up. And they had to wait several hours before seeing them.
This, after a previous incident — again the kids walking home from a park — that prompted police, according to an article Danielle Meitiv wrote for the Washington Post, to enter their home without a warrant, questioning their kids there and at school, and asking things like, “What would you do if someone grabbed you?”
By trying to protect kids from horror, you can sometimes create it.
But even worse is the freedom to parent that is being taken away. The laws on the books where the Meitivs live are oppressive. In their town, leaving anyone under 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect. CPS reportedly has threatened the Meitivs with foster care.
Look. I am in favor of stopping abuse, enforcing kids’ attendance at school and keeping them from obvious danger.
But being outside, during the day, at ages 10 and 6, in a middle-class suburb, when you know how to get home, just doesn’t fit the hysteria.
Safe places to grow up
Now, whenever you discuss this issue, people jump to their own childhoods. I walked half a mile to school as a 6-year-old, rode a subway and two buses to school when I was 11 and was told by my mother, repeatedly, “Go outside and play somewhere. Anywhere!”
As I said, prison and Sunday visitation.
But the knee-jerk reaction will be “the world was much safer when you were a kid.” Not necessarily. There was an abduction in the next town over. We heard about it. But it didn’t shadow everything we did for the rest of our lives. We walked in groups of siblings or friends. We didn’t take silly chances.
And if a policeman saw us and asked a question, the worst — worst — that might happen is he’d say “hop in” and he’d bring us home.
The truth is crime, statistically, is relatively low today. Middle- and upper-class suburbs are plenty safe for kids. And the dangers kids face being inside their entire childhood — from obesity to weirdos online (yeah, that’s a safe place to keep your kids all day, the Internet) — may outweigh the danger of playing with your sibling in the park.
I’m not saying bad things don’t happen. But when and if they do, it’s a risk of life — it was before, it is now — and it needs to be addressed by authorities going after bad people. You want to patrol streets, do it for creeps and perverts. Why take it out on the kids?
Did you know a benefit cited with free-range poultry? That the chickens, allowed to roam outside, don’t attack and eat each other.
We might learn more from those birds than we thought.