When 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.