Earlier this winter, I reported on a scuffle in suburban Maryland that ensued when a husband and wife couple let their two children, ages six and ten, walk home alone from the park through their neighborhood. The parents were placed under investigation by Child Protective Services.
Last month, the Meitiv family once again landed in the spotlight after their kids walked home from a different park, unsupervised. This time, however, a bystander called 911 and the children were picked by the police and taken to Montgomery County Child Protective Services office, where they were held for two hours before their parents were notified.
The Meitiv case has spawned a frenzied, widespread showdown between proponents of the "free-range parenting" movement, which encourages independence in children and allows them the sorts of liberties that were common a generation ago, and the more hands-on style of "helicopter parenting" that's become so prevalent in recent years. It also raises the perennial and perplexing question: just how much supervision do children need?
According to a 2014 public opinion poll by Reason/Rupe, the answer is: a lot. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed think that children face more risks today than when they were children, and 63 percent believe that the law should require 12 year olds to be supervised while playing at public parks. In response to the question of what age children should be allowed to play in front of their houses without a parent watching, the respondents answered with a median age of 11.
Statistics tell a different story. According to an April 14 story from the Washington Post titled "There's Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America," the CDC reports that overall child mortality rates have dropped nearly 50 percent since 1990. Homicides, child abduction rates, and traffic-related pedestrian injuries among kids have also fallen dramatically. Fueled by the 24/7 news cycle and the way that bad experiences are transmitted via social media, our perception of the dangers have outpaced the reality of them.
The long-term benefits of independence are considerable. Earlier this year, research from Ryerson University in Toronto concluded that kids who play unsupervised are more physically active, and a 2007 study by researchers at University College London that found children who are given the freedom to play outside on their own enjoy greater sociability than those who stay home.
But parenting isn’t about statistics. It's a tug-of-war between love and fear, and the act of discerning which one—at any given time—outweighs the other. It's intensely personal, and the question of how hands-on to be is far more nuanced than it might seem.
It depends on how you were raised and where you live, the age of your children, their personalities, and their tolerance for separation. It depends on their chosen activities and the objective risks they face. For many single parents or dual-income families without the means to afford after school child care, free-range parenting isn't a choice but a necessity. And then there are other, less measurable, more emotional metrics. As the Meitiv's story snowballed, a friend told me that he definitely fell into the helicopter camp of parenting. I was surprised. He exuded such joie de vivre with his ten-year-old daughter that I was sure he must be a laissez-faire father. Then he confided that he'd lost her twin, at age four, to pneumonia. "So I've got that whole dead-child fear," he told me, sadly.
His revelation sideswiped me, but it was also a humbling reminder that childrearing defies simplistic labels. I've always thought of myself as categorically free-range. My siblings and I were raised with enormous, exhilarating freedom in our suburban New Jersey neighborhood: four-square in the street, manhunt after dark, solo bike rides across town. Textbook early '80s action. (In a recent story on chicagonow.com, writer Christine Whitley turned up a checklist to determine first-grader readiness, circa 1979. On the list: "Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or a friend's house?" Freedoms most of us wouldn’t consider bestowing on a six-year-old today.) I've always wanted the same freedoms for my own daughters, now six and four. But listening to my friend talk about his fears of losing his living daughter, I realized that my own parenting philosophy is far from black and white.
The truth is, when it comes to certain activities, I helicopter with the best of them. For example, trampolines terrify me. Growing up in my family, we had few hard-and-fast rules, but our mother forbade us to jump on them, imagining gruesome broken necks and a lifetime of paralysis, and her admonition put the fear of God in me. To the best of my recollection, I never set foot on one. Now I'm that neurotic mom hovering beside the trampoline, yelling to my overjoyed, airborne daughters, "Sit down! Not so high!" Buzz kill, personified.
Our girls are still so young that in situations where there is a lot of exposure or serious consequence, we take great precautions. On rafting trips we make them wear life jackets; I keep an extra close eye on them from the shore when they play in the ocean. We have a contingency plan for getting separated at the farmer’s market. When our six-year-old rides her bike to school, along mostly-quiet side streets in downtown Santa Fe, I tail her, yelling "Curb!" whenever she wobbles and veers into the middle of the street. You can hear us coming from a long way away. We're practicing for the day when she's ready to do it on her own. Sometimes on the road to free-range, you have to hover.
Becoming free-range is a progression, and it's also about creating community. On the four-block, seven-minute bike commute to school, we pass art galleries and my friend's acupuncture office. We wave to the middle-school girl waiting on the corner for the bus, and we see the same elderly couple walking their fluffy little dog. "Good morning!" we call. These daily bike rides are building a neighborhood safety net for her as much as they're teaching her how to safely navigate traffic. It would be faster and easier to drive her. But we want her to be at home outside, in the fresh air, moving under her own power, so we put in the time now so she'll enjoy her freedom later.
Maybe this is the middle way: Not insistently free-range, nor obsessively helicopter. Think of it as fresh-air parenting. Most of my happiest childhood memories happened outside, in nature. Many of these times were with our parents: hurling ourselves down our Washington, D.C., alley on our tricycles, while our mother stood at the bottom shouting "All clear!"; long hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my father; beating back a brutal headwind with him on a bicycle trip in Nova Scotia. Despite occasional bouts of teenage brattiness, we liked spending time with our parents, and vice versa. Being outside together brought us closer until we had the skills and confidence to roam on our own, and eventually become fresh-air parents ourselves.