Free Range Parents Can’t Ignore That it Takes a Village

Street shadowsWhen it comes to the free-range parenting debate—recently sparked again by the case of Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, of Silver Spring, who were reported to county child welfare officials for letting their 10-year-old son and his six-year-old sister walk around the neighborhood alone—people tend to fall into one of two camps. There’s the “I used to play in toxic waste dumps and I’m okay” folks; on the other side, there are those who say “free-range parenting” is just a fancy name for “making other people raise your kids.”

But nobody parents in a vacuum, so let’s put this in context. In this case, the context is community, or lack thereof. I learned this the hard way.

When my daughter Suzanne was in fifth grade, she was invited to a birthday party at a house not in our neighborhood, but close to us—within easy walking distance via a short hitch on a bike trail that linked our neighborhood and theirs. Suzanne asked me if, on the day of the party, she could bring her friend Sarah (not her real name) home with her for an after-party visit, just to hang out. Specifically, she wanted to show her friend her private little kingdom in the woods off the bike trail, where she had built a series of forts and hide-outs along a small creek. After checking on the birthday party, Google-mapping the address and making sure Sarah’s mom was on board with this plan, I said yes—provided, I said, my daughter and her friend were home absolutely no later than 4 p.m. This was May; there was plenty of daylight; my daughter had a watch, and had proved her reliability.

Fifth grade had been a tough year for my daughter for many reasons, but one of them was that she was having trouble with social skills. Other problems at her school had been bad enough that we would have switched her to another school—except that in fifth grade, for the first time in several lonely years, she had begun to make friends. The birthday party invitation was a big deal. Having a friend to invite over to the house was also a big deal. I sent her off to the party with a present and a fervent desire that she would have a blast.

An hour or so later, my daughter called; she and her friend were ready to leave the party, but somebody wanted to talk to me. Birthday Girl’s Mom got on the phone —  “They are telling me that they are allowed to walk home alone,” she said, in a tone which indicated deep skepticism. I assured her that was correct, that I appreciated her checking, and told her I was sorry I hadn’t told her about this arrangement earlier (which I should have done). “O-kaaay,” she said. A little warning bell rang in my head, but I ignored it. A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Birthday Girl’s Mom. “They’ve left already, but I am just anxious about them walking by themselves,” she said.

“They’ll be fine,” I said. “My daughter has walked that way many times by herself, and walking our dog.”

“Well, just to be sure, I’ve sent my son out after them,” she told me. I rolled my eyes. “Well, thanks,” I said. “But it really wasn’t necessary.” The little warning bell was getting harder to ignore. A few minutes later, there was another call.

“My son just came back, and he says he can’t find them.” This time, there was no mistaking a note of rising panic in her voice. I was getting alarmed, too, for totally different reasons.

“The reason he didn’t see them on the path,” I said, “is that they were going to make a detour through the woods, to my daughter’s little play area”—and the instant I said “the woods” we went from alarm to DEFCON 4. Over the next 15 or 20 minutes, I fielded a series of increasingly hysterical phone calls from Birthday Girl’s Mom. As I was to discover later, the birthday celebration had stopped, search parties had formed and somebody had called 911. Far too late, I realized that I had walked into a buzzsaw —and, worse, I had unwittingly put my daughter and her friend into the same predicament. I frantically called my husband, who was out jogging on another section of the same bike trail, and told him what was happening. “Find them,” I said. By then, I was semi-hysterical myself. “They’re down at the creek. Please try to get there before the cops do.”

He did. When he, my daughter and my daughter’s friend came out of the woods—ironically, at a spot maybe a whole 75 yards from the site of the birthday party—they were met by a swarm of adults in various stages of Amber Alert alarm and not one but two Prince George’s County police cars. Unlike the Meitivs’ case, this one did not end in a referral to child services; my husband’s presence, plus a lot of over-the-top hand-wringing by Birthday Girl’s Mom and her friends, may have played a role in convincing the police that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. All I know for sure is the outcome, which was that: a) Sarah’s mom, who had responded to an emergency summons to the party, apparently caved to overwhelming peer pressure and stoutly denied ever giving Sarah permission to go into the woods, thereby throwing me and Suzanne under the bus; b) Suzanne’s friendship with Sarah was over; and, c) Suzanne was the topic of whispering and gossip at school for weeks. As I said, it was a tough year.

The worst part, the part that still grieves me, is that Suzanne never again regarded the woods as what they had once been to her: a magical childhood kingdom. An 11-year-old can be pretty cowed by the sight of two police cars.

We all live in communities, or think we do. But community is more than just a specific area or a bunch of houses which share the same subdivision name or zip code. Real community has to do with shared interests, values and assumptions, and shared trust. In an era marked by a toxic level of political polarization, ever-widening wealth inequality and a pervasive level of disdain we call the “culture wars,” these qualities are increasingly hard to find—and you definitely cannot assume, as I did, that they exist.

Birthday Girl’s Mom and I lived in the same zip code, but in parallel universes. In my universe, child molesters don’t hang out at woodsy creeks hoping a kid will walk by; they coach soccer, or they hang out at playgrounds, or they ask mom for a little one-on-one time with their favorite niece—and woods in a quiet suburban neighborhood are there for kids to explore. Her universe was one in which danger lurked everywhere, especially the woods, and only a negligent parent would let a child out of his or her eyesight.

Even if you think free-range parenting is the way to go, and I really do, it works only if it operates on a basic shared communal assumption: “I can’t keep my eyes on my kids at all times, so keep an eye on them for me and if you see them misbehaving, set them straight—and I’ll do the same for yours.” When bystanders react to the sight of a kid walking down a street alone by calling 911, they are essentially handing off their role in a functioning community—my idea of one, anyway. I don’t think people are doing this because they are malicious, or selfish, or lazy. They may do this because they honestly believe good parents should never let their children out of their eyesight; they may do it because they are a responsible, law-abiding adult male who fears—with good reason, given our current climate—that approaching an unaccompanied child on the street would make them look like a potential predator. Mostly, I think, they do it because of a lack of trust. Birthday Girl’s Mom didn’t trust in her community either to be a place where the actual number of predators is vanishingly small, which it is, or a place where most people were up to the job of being a parent. In the absence of trust, she immediately resorted to the blunt governmental weapon we know as the police.

The other part of this social contract is reciprocity. A recent Washington Post article described how this works in a lower-income area of Southeast Washington where most households are single-parent and most parents are working. “My neighbors would look out for my kids” while she was at work, one single mom said. “No one was judging me, because they knew I was trying to get back on my feet.” And she returns the favor: “The family next door, the parents have to work late. So we all take care of that baby”—the last word an affectionate term for what is in fact a 14-year-old teenager. “That’s how we do in Southeast. I have a lot of pride about how we stick together.”

And here, according to a recent article in Slate by Jessica Roarke, is where the Meitivs apparently failed to keep their end of the bargain. According to neighbors, the Meitivs were totally on board with allowing other folks to keep an eye on their kids—but when it came to the Meitivs’ keeping an eye on the neighbors’ kids, not so much. They lived in the community, but they were not integral parts of it. They weren’t known for hosting neighborhood kid parties, they never hung out at the park, they never had the kind of casual encounters with their neighbors at school or at the grocery store where the pros and cons of various parenting philosophies might have come up as a topic of conversation. They made a one-sided bargain with their neighbors that their neighbors never even knew existed. If you want to be a free-range parent, you have to occasionally sign up for your turn herding the flock.

In a real community, that’s the way things would work. It’s not so much a question of living near people whose parenting philosophies are exactly like your own, because that will never happen, but living with people who start with the assumption that other parents are acting in good faith.

I’d like to think that if I saw the Meitiv kids walking down the street by themselves, I’d keep an eye on where they were going. I might even say, “Hey, kids, you’re not lost, are you? Okay. Watch the light when you cross.” In a real community, that wouldn’t be regarded as an imposition; it would just be everyday life. And in a real community, the Meitivs wouldn’t just unilaterally decide that they would be free-range parents; they would know my kids as well as I knew theirs.

Sadly, as I learned that day my neighbor called the police, I do not live in a community—and neither do the Meitivs. But such things are possible. Just ask those folks in Southeast.

You can find Tracy Thompson at her website, www.tracythompson.com, and at her blog, The Blockhead Chronicles. Her most recent book is The New Mind of the South.

Image via Depositphotos

  • tamarz

    I understand why you feel the way you do after your experience, but I think you don’t know all the details of what happened here in my community of Silver Spring. Virtually all the media reports (I think there was one exception) left out key details.

    There were two incidents. After the first one, the 10 year-old and her 6 year-old brother walking by themselves down busy Georgia Avenue, most of us, including me, sympathized with the parents and thought the concern about the safety of the children was way overblown. But after the 2nd incident, I began to change my mind (and I wondered about the first incident — maybe it wasn’t quite as simple and straightforward and safe as it sounded). In the second incident, the children (still 10 & 6) were dropped off at a park, described as nearby in news reports, but actually about a mile from their home. It’s a big park — I know it well. I have to wonder how well the 10 year old supervised the 6 year old, but that’s actually not the main issue. The children then proceeded to walk home. But first they went up to a stranger with a dog and asked to pet the dog. The stranger, a navy corpsman, began to worry about the kids seemingly wandering around alone through the Silver Spring business district. He followed them and called the police, stayed on the phone with the police as he described what was happening. You can listen to the entire conversation on line. I tracked the kids’ route using google maps. Several blocks before their house they crossed a street moving away from their house (so they were no longer heading toward home) and for some reason went in back of a business and into a commercial parking garage. That’s where the police found them. Not in a “nearby” playground, playing comfortably, but off of their route home in a somewhat unsafe situation. I myself would not feel safe in a parking garage in that area. There was then a delay while decisions were made about what to do. Then another delay before the parents were called. My husband, a community and child psychiatrist, said that it is SOP for Child Protective Services to delay bringing parents in, in order to talk to children without parents there so the children will be able to talk freely. There have been lots of complaints about how the parents weren’t called right away, and that’s legitimate. But very few people talk about the fact that even though the children were 2-4 hours late by that time, the parents apparently did not call the police! (they apparently asked around and couldn’t find the children, but still didn’t call the police. That’s nuts in my opinion).
    Ask yourself this. If you had an incident in which your children were picked up by the police, Child Protective Services got involved, and you were notified that you were in trouble, even if you thought that the police and CPS were wrong, would you just a few weeks later drop them off at a park a mile from your home and tell them to make their own way home which required a route through a business area, busy streets, and some sketchy commercial areas?
    And as for community being involved instead of calling 911, it was a worried stranger who did this and I admire him. He was seriously concerned about the children and stuck his neck out to try to protect them. That’s different from the overly worried, intrusive birthday girl’s mother in your situation. I think it was fine that she called you the first time, just to check, but she should have dropped the whole thing once she knew you were aware and in charge. Yes, I agree that an overly protective busybody blew up your reasonable rules for your daughter, but that is not at all the situation here in Silver Spring.

  • tamarz

    p.s. the fact that two separate people called the police in each case, with the second one not knowing anything about the first incident, makes me think that the people who notified the police saw something in the behavior of the kids that worried them.

    • Arnebya

      Tamarz, I let my daughters read your comment (after I read this article to them) and both said something I hadn’t considered, the 11 yr old first: “I would have altered my route if there was a strange man following me.” Since this is your community, is there an alternate route they could have used that wouldn’t have taken them behind buildings, etc.?

      • tamarz

        I thought about that but no one has said that’s why they shifted their route. If it was the reason, that means their training from their parents is extremely poor because going into a dark isolated area to get away from a stranger is obviously not a good thing. (there are stores and businesses along the route that they could have entered and told someone they were being followed). Either they wandered around because that’s what they do, or they’re too young to have the judgment to know what to do when worried about a stranger. Either way it’s a “free-range” fail from my point of view.

  • noname

    Everyone is naively blaming busy body people or anxious people as anti free range. One word_ perspective. Yes crimes against children are rare and stranger based crimes against kids even more so. In my opinion those who embrace free range blissfully have had only positive events in life no trauma. That is great and how it should be but not always how it is for all. In my opinion busy body anxious birthday mom may have a traumatic past you have no idea of. The birthday party shut down! is that normal ? No but normal is most parents give a heads up if the pick up person or situation is different than drop off. Does it occur to anyone that there are less fortunate people out there who while they respect your parenting style could trigger someone who experienced trauma ? They are allowed to be apart of society and not share our trauma everyday and if they told you -often you blame the victim. Just as you dont announce free range to all trauma does not announce evil to you. some people cross paths with evil you are fortunate not to have crossed its path. good for you. You are lucky and blessed and lucky to have a free range as an option. If you sense distress in another parent it is called hypervigilance and try to give others the perspective you ask them to give you and your parenting style. Theymay be your opposite never by choice.
    In the end yes calling cops extreme but caring for your kids safety, fearing potential legalities etc can be a concern for some youre just lucky to not have to think that way. Don’t forget nature and nurture Ones brain is shaped by experience. trauma can devastate the brain. You may have given busy body a wake up call to work on trauma pat yourself on back. She introduce that evil actually exist to you she won’t pat herself on back. World works in strange ways eh? may all kids be safe regardless of fights over parenting styles and the background that forms them. In utopia no one should have to ever write this perspective for you…..

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