The story of the kids taken into police and child protection custody just for walking home unaccompanied in the Washington suburbs has provoked a lot of debate about parenting practices. The way it’s been told and retold, the saga of the Meitiv children — ages 10 and 6 — is the ultimate expression of the impulses behind helicopter parenting, highlighting the degree to which we have become paranoid about stranger kidnapping to the point of depriving our children of the opportunity to play outdoors and become self-reliant and independent.
But in a country as diverse as ours with long-standing and persistent child welfare problems, we shouldn’t overgeneralize too much from this case or a few others like it.
It is true that stranger kidnapping is relatively rare, and that children are considerably more at risk at the hands of family members and close acquaintances than strangers (who commit only 10 percent of all violent crimes against juveniles). But streets and public areas in America are far from the safe places they should be, and the risk greatly depends on the locale. There are neighborhoods where by-standing children get shot or see fights, drug dealing and other crimes. On the streets and in the playgrounds, children in public get bullied and harassed by peers and older youths. Of the million violent crimes against juveniles that get reported to the police year each, about 250,000 occurred outdoors or in commercial areas. And there are indeed serious traffic dangers in our many suburban and urban environments that are poorly designed for young pedestrians and bicyclists; each year, almost 15,000 pedestrians under 16 are injured. So some safety concerns are, in fact, quite justified — even if they don’t apply to kids walking home from a park in the suburbs.
Another tenet of the free-range story is that stranger-danger anxiety is depriving children of needed outdoor time. Children may indeed be spending less time outdoors in free play with other children. But this trend isn’t only caused by irrational angst. The main culprit is the engagement of children in the new electronic environment, which is where they now want to spend their free time and connect with their friends. Other factors? The disappearance of neighborhood schools in walking distance of home. The declining birthrate and suburban sprawl, which mean there are fewer kids of the same ages around in the neighborhood to play with face-to-face. And the rise of organized and instructional activities, which occupy more and more of kids’ time. Outdoor free play is great, but changing patterns of childhood activity are not necessarily driven by parental paranoia.
The worry about independence is overdrawn as well. In today’s networked environment, children go to lots of unfamiliar places and do lots of challenging things they never could have previously (for example, write book reviews on Amazon); in this new domain, the predominant concern appears to be that they do not receive enough close supervision. The fact that children carry around cellphones means that parents can give them a much longer leash, because they can check in about their activities and be available for help if needed. Children typically crave independence and are quick to protest and grab it when deprived. Running away is one indicator of children who feel overly constrained by parental restrictions, but that has actually been in decline.
Finally, have our child protection agencies gone overboard with ridiculous standards for parenting? It seems pretty apparent that the Maryland authorities over-reacted to a family whose parenting resources and skills seem quite competent. But neglectful parenting is a most serious problem in America, with 540,000 substantiated cases in 2013. Neglect, not abuse, is the culprit in a majority of the child maltreatment fatalities (almost 1,000 a year), and is a peril that has not declined in recent years. The most frequent incarnations are young children left unattended at home or in cars for egregiously long periods, children with serious medical conditions that are untreated, and children who have access to patently unsafe environments like meth labs. To try to help these children, we have child abuse laws that mandate that professionals — and in some states all citizens — report on children whom they just “suspect” might be neglected or abused.
But we cannot have a sentinel system that flags children in true danger without also mistakenly flagging some children who are in no danger at all, like the Meitivs. These false alarms are intrinsic to any “detection” system, from mammograms to 911 switchboards. A good system encourages vigilance but is quick to recognize the false alarms and minimizes their side effects. That was the real problem in the Meitiv case — not that a neighbor or police officer wanted to check to make sure that the kids were safe, but that the whole thing wasn’t resolved with a quick phone call.