Those Free-Range Kids: A Neighbor Weighs In

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

Everyone’s still talking about the Meitivs, “the free-range kids,” who have been picked up multiple times by Child Protective Services or police for walking around their Maryland neighborhood alone. Up until now, I felt only compassion for the parents of these wonderfully independent kids, and wondered if they were being spied on by their over-vigilant, interfering neighbors.

But one of these neighbors, Jessica Roake, has painted a slightly different picture of what’s been happening. She notes the media attention, including the family’s Today Show appearance, and bristles at the characterization of herself and her other neighbors as busybodies who are turning the neighborhood into a police state. “There are no roaming bands of snitches stalking free-range kids around our neighborhoods,” she says.

The Meitiv kids, by all local accounts, are nice, normal kids. Since Roake doesn’t know the family personally, she talked to 12 parents who do. They told her about conflicts on the playground that required parental intervention, truck drivers who had to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting the kids when they crossed without looking both ways, and a time the kids were escorted “through the crowd at the Takoma Folk Festival to look for their parents because they didn’t know where they were.”

Her point is that free-range parenting ends up relying on the intervention of other adults, and that even if the parents don’t want that, they’re likely to get it anyway. Roake says that the guy who dialed 911 after seeing them walking on their own was a total stranger out walking his dog, who didn’t know who they were. He didn’t approach them directly because he didn’t want to scare them, so he called and the police showed up. The Meitivs may have to face the fact that they’re not just practicing a parenting philosophy themselves, they’re bringing other people into it whether they like it or not.

And yet I get what they’re trying to do. My own kids are just a year older than each of theirs. My son started middle school this past September, which is when we bought him a cell phone and started letting him walk around our neighborhood by himself for the first time.

Last Sunday, the kids wanted to go to a play at the local high school, and insisted that they could go on their own. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our house, or 10 minutes at an adult pace. After some deliberation, we agreed, with all kinds of double-checking before they went out the door, about the hierarchy of which kid was in charge, the responsibility of being the one in charge, and the importance of good behavior at the play. The experiment was a success, and they loved the independence, tethered as it was. Yeah, maybe I used to run around my neighborhood a lot more as a kid, but I don’t need to recreate my own childhood. I just need to do what I’m comfortable with. I never had a cell phone because they didn’t exist, but I love that my son does, because then I feel more comfortable when I release him on his own recognizance.

But if he got into trouble, I would want my neighbors to help, and if my son got picked up even once by the police of Child Protective Services, I would have to rethink my parenting game plan. It can’t be pleasant for those kids to get picked up, and questioned, and know that people are talking about their family on the news. And I don’t think they can keep sending them out and expect things to change.

Or, as one neighbor put it, “What are you supposed to do if you see two kids alone in a parking lot? Nothing? What would you do?”

Maybe it’s time the Meitivs put themselves in someone else’s shoes, instead of expecting everyone else to step into theirs.

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