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Maryland “free-range parents,” the Meitivs, made national headlines again last week following a neighbor’s 911 call to report that the couple’s 6- and 10-year-old children were playing at a park two blocks from their home without supervision.  When police arrived, they placed the kids in a squad car for three hours before taking them to a crisis center run by Child Protective Services. More than five hours after being taken from the playground, the children were released to their parents. The Meitivs are threatening a lawsuit over the incident. This controversy has me evaluating my own parenting style, one that falls somewhere between being a free-ranger and being a helicopter.

Like the Maryland family, we live in a Washington D.C. suburb. My kids are the same age as the Meitiv children. They walk home from the bus in the afternoon together. Could something happen? Yes, we suppose it could.

As a 10-year-old back in 1982, I learned just how real those possibilities are when 3-year-old Rachael Runyan disappeared from a playground in Sunset, Utah, not far from my childhood home.  News reports detailed how she had been playing with her older brothers when a stranger approached and offered her candy if she would get in his car.

Up until that summer, the biggest danger I ever encountered on a playground involved scratching my hand on some barbed wire. Later, a classmate broke his collarbone jumping backwards out of a swing. Hell, we kids had to invent danger; import it from cartoons like Scooby Doo and superimpose it on the dark, creepy looking house on the other side of the creek only visible through heavy scrub brush beyond our school property.

For three weeks following Rachael’s disappearance, local television broadcasts repeatedly ran a photograph of her with her curly, blonde hair popping out of two barrettes like streamers on a bicycle’s handle bars. My mother seized the occasion to warn my younger sister and me about talking to strangers. To address our trips to the local playground, Mom invented scenarios wherein a man (it was always a man) would pull his car up to a curb and ask for directions.

“Come a little closer, I can’t hear you,” the fictional man would say.

Under no circumstances should we approach the car. That line was the signal to run. If he followed, it was time to scream “fire.” This word, rather than “help,” would guarantee that some adult would come out of her (always a female) house and take the scream seriously.

Searchers eventually located Rachael’s bound, naked body in a remote mountain area. I went cold as I saw the picture of the girl flash on the screen. The television report brought my mother out of the kitchen to see the crime scene footage. “I knew it,” she muttered. At the time, I thought her response seemed callous. Thirty years later, as a mother of young children, I suspect she wanted to be wrong, wanted to live in a world where children could be both free and safe.

If there was ever a time to become a helicopter parent, it was definitely in the wake of this tragedy, yet my mother allowed my sister (age 7) and me (age 10) to continue our walks to the neighborhood playground together. Undoubtedly, she had trouble letting us go with a sexual predator on the loose. I did my part to exercise caution by watching any adult within a two-block radius for signs that he might pose a threat. We were all a little scared, but we took the calculated risk. To do otherwise would have confined us to the 1,300 square feet of our house.

I haven’t told my children about Rachael. Statistically, this is a very safe time for kids, and I don’t want them to believe someone is out to get them. Nonetheless, I talk to them about stranger danger and remind them to go to a neighbor’s house if they need help. I weigh legitimate threats against my kids’ need to grow as independent beings.

There is a neighborhood park nearly six blocks from our house that we frequent as a family. Getting there involves crossing a two-lane road that serves as a bus route without the benefit of a crosswalk. The park is nestled in the woods. Would I send my kids there alone? I haven’t, at least not yet. But if the day comes when I decide they can handle it, I don’t see myself calling the local precinct for permission to let them go.

The balance between danger and independence is precarious enough for our kids. We shouldn’t have to add police cruisers to the list of things to avoid when they venture outside.

Wendy Besel Hahn is a contributor to Around Reston. To read more of her work, check out www.wendybeselhahn.com or follow her on twitter @wendybeselhahn.

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