The end of the wild child? Why kids today are no longer free to roam

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Danielle Meitiv, right, walks home with her daughter Dvora Meitiv, 6, left, Rosie Resnick, 9, and her son Rafi Meitiv, 10. Photo: The Washington Post Danielle Meitiv waits with her son Rafi Meitiv, 10, for Danielle’s daughter Dvora Meitiv, 6, to be dropped off at the neighborhood school bus stop in Silver Spring. Photo: The Washington Post
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Last Sunday at 5pm, a man walking his dog through the suburban streets of Silver Spring, just outside Washington DC, saw something that compelled him to take out his phone and call 911.

“There are two kids that are unaccompanied,” he said to the operator.

“And they’ve been walking around for about 20 minutes by themselves.”

The kids were Rafi Meitiv, 10, and his little sister Dvora, 6, who were on their way home from playing in a local park.

Their parents, Danielle and Alexander, are outspoken proponents of “free range parenting”, which advocates unsupervised, adventurous outdoor play and exploring. They had dropped them off at the park, and expected them to make their own way home that afternoon.

Police were quickly dispatched. They picked up the children and, acting on protocols in cases where they suspect child abuse or neglect, took the kids to Child Protective Services [CPS], the government agency responsible for child welfare.

It was more than five hours before the Meitiv parents, sick with worry, were eventually reunited with their kids.

“We finally got home at 11pm,” Danielle Meitiv posted on Facebook later, “and the kids slept in our room because we were all exhausted and terrified.”

Police and CPS, who had warned the Meitivs’ before over similar incidences, are still investigating, while the family says it will take legal action over the “unlawful seizure” of their kids.

News of this extraordinary turn of events quickly spread via the family’s social networks, garnering international media attention within a few days.

Part of the focus was on this particular family and their recurring clashes with the law over their parenting style.

But the incident sparked wider discussion too about just how much cultural and legal attitudes about childhood, safety and supervision have changed in America, and in other Western countries. Just a couple of generations ago, it is difficult to imagine that the sight of children walking home alone through their own neighbourhood would have caused surprise, let alone triggered the intervention of police and welfare agencies.

However, Fairfax Media reported in 2012 that police had told a Hornsby mother it was “inappropriate” for her 10-year-old daughter to catch a bus unaccompanied, and warned a Manly father that they would be filing a report after he let his seven-year-old son walk alone to a local shop. It was 400 metres away.

“Do we really want to punish people for letting their children play outside?” says Shelby Gull Laird, a parent and researcher who has worked in both the US and Australia and looked at shifting attitudes to outdoor play.

“Because all of the data seems to show that playing outside is really important and really healthy for children.

“I think we’ve sort of bubble-wrapped our children too much, in trying to protect them. And in that protection we may actually be doing them more harm than good.”

One of Laird’s projects looked at the curious phenomenon among many modern parents: cherishing fond memories of your own wild, roaming childhoods, but making very different choices for your kids, generally out of fear of something dangerous happening.

Many Generation X and Baby Boomer parents can recall afternoons or school holidays spent playing unsupervised games with other kids, roaming in parks or near creeks with little to encumber them except the promise to be home for dinner.  But there are few children today who do the same. Few even travel to school alone before they hit puberty.

The proportion of kids under 13 who live within a mile (1.6 kilometres) of school and walk or ride a bike there in the US has plummeted from 89 per cent to just 35 per cent since 1969. More than 40 per cent of Americans believe the government should legally require children up to the age of 12 be supervised when playing in a park.

The preliminary findings of a three-year Victorian study, described as the first of its kind in Australia, found almost half (48 per cent) of parents worried about their child’s safety when they were not with an adult because a stranger might approach them.

The VicHealth​ study, which is due to release its final research findings in October, also found this fear was enough to prompt about a third (36 per cent) of parents to avoid situations where their child went out unaccompanied.

But the opportunity to develop resilience, independence and confidence are just some of what children are missing out on when not allowed time alone to play or explore, say proponents like Laird.

“[Kids] learn better how to manage their own behaviour, they learn better how to manage risk taking,” she says. “That is pretty well studied by psychologists.”

Lenore Skenazy​, journalist and author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) blames a 24 hour news and media cycle obsessed with child harm, as well as industries that play on parents’ fears, for creating the perception the world is a more dangerous place now.

“It starts to feel like 24/7 our kids are in danger, because 24/7 they’re in danger on TV,” she told Fairfax Media.

“Once you believe that, seeing a kid outside looks like a crime about to happen.”

Despite high-profile cases that confirm every parent’s worst nightmare, trends in both America and Australia show violent crime is dropping, not rising.

Skenazy became the face of free range parenting in 2009, after she and her husband yielded to requests from their 9-year-old son to be allowed to take the New York subway home by himself. She was reticent, but equipped him with a ticket, spare money and a map. He made it home in one piece, proud and happy.

Since then she has written a column about the experience which went viral, then a book, a blog, and now speaks at conferences and corporations about her experiences and philosophy.

She says the fear of being picked up by police or welfare agencies is now another driver of parent caution. Cases like the Meitiv’s are rare but they happen. A mother in South Carolina was arrested in 2014 for letting her 9-year-old play in a park rather than wait inside the McDonalds where she worked.

“I spent the first five years convincing parents you could let your kids play outside and they weren’t going to be preyed upon by strangers,” says Skenazy. “Now I feel like I have to convince people they won’t be preyed upon by the police.”

But whether this more cautious, protective attitude towards children, from parents and society at large, is something to be lamented is not shared by everyone, of course.

“Better my kid is alive to visit a therapist when they turn 30 than to be enlightened and ‘free range’ but die all too young,” is how one droll commenter put it on the New York Times website recently.

Laird says it’s time to have a broader public discussion about what we now think are the acceptable ages to do things, and to try and reactivate communities, which once acted as eyes and ears on roaming children.

“What keeps happening is a neighbour or do-gooder keeps calling police… if you know your neighbours and you know everyone who lives around you, you would simply call the parents.”

Others have argued too, though, that a culture and child welfare system that is active about protecting children and responding to potential danger is something to value, not vilify.

Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which deals with serious cases of neglect and abuse, wrote in the Washington Post this week that much of the debate about free range parenting and the Meitiv family’s case missed the bigger picture.

“I find that parents are seldom accused of neglect because of a difference in opinion about their parenting style,” she said.

“I agree with many whose reaction to the free-range parenting story is to seek to have Child Protective Services less involved in parental decisions. But to get there, we need to create a community where the agency truly no longer is needed because all children are safe.”

We used to just be ‘parents’… what today’s different labels mean:

Free range: Emphasises unstructured time for kids to play, explore and be outdoors without parental surveillance, as well as doing (age-appropriate) household and life tasks on their own.

Helicopter: Pejorative term for parents who hover and monitor their children closely, plan all activities and swoop in at the first sign of risk, hurt feelings or what they perceive as a bad grade at school.

Attachment: Prioritises closeness between parent and child, advocating breastfeeding, co-sleeping, “positive discipline”, some supporters may be wary of long periods of separation, even child care in some cases, especially for small infants.

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