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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

January 25, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The continuing saga of Alexander and Danielle Meitiv and their children is proving very therapeutic to the body politic generally. Doubtless the Meitiv family would prefer to have not been chosen to be our collective medicine, but fate works in funny ways. Read about it here (Washington Post, 1/17/15).

The Meitivs of course are the Maryland couple who dared to allow their two children, ages 10 and six, to walk home from a park, one mile away. As I reported earlier, they didn’t make it, not because of some kidnapper lurking in the bushes, but because of the police. Someone called them and they picked up the children, brought them home and then lectured Alexander on the dangers awaiting every child around every corner.

Pretty soon, Child Protective Services showed up and demanded that he sign a child safety “plan.” When he demurred, the caseworker said he had a choice – sign or have your children taken from you. Hey, it’s just how those people roll. No, the children weren’t in any danger and no, they hadn’t been abused. And needless to say, no one ever claimed the Meitivs to be unfit parents. Far from it.

So we all are led to wonder on what authority would a CPS caseworker take Alexander and Danielle’s children. It’s a good question and one that no one has ever answered except with “try and stop them.” Put simply, it was an exercise of naked power by the state aimed directly at the Meitivs’ most vulnerable spot – their kids.

But it is precisely because the Meitivs are anything but neglectful that the case has become national news. Alexander and Danielle are highly educated people who obviously put a lot of thought into how they want to raise their children. They’re the very opposite of neglectful; they’re care personified.

Two days after the story of their children’s unsupervised walk home from a park became the latest flash point in an ongoing cultural debate about what constitutes responsible parenting, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were still explaining their “old-fashioned” methods of child-rearing.

They eat dinner with their children. They enforce bedtimes, restrict screen times and assign chores. They go to synagogue. More controversially, they let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter venture out together to walk or play without adults.

These are people bent on instilling responsibility in their children and part of that is learning how to be on one’s own. So gradually, they allow the kids to expand their horizons, not because Alexander and Danielle can’t be bothered to look after them, but because looking after them means allowing them ever greater autonomy. I have no doubt that if either of the children demonstrated an inability to handle some new freedom, the Meitivs would impose appropriate new restrictions.

But apart from their own situation, which has yet to be resolved, the conversation about parenting in today’s society has taken an important new turn. The Meitivs have identified themselves as “Free Range Parents,” the term coined by Lenore Skenazy and embraced by countless parents nationwide.

The term may be unfortunate. Some may use it to suggest that parents of the “free range” persuasion in some way simply turn their kids loose to do as they please, come what may. Nothing could be further from the truth as the Meitivs themselves exemplify. Again, these people are anything but neglectful in their parenting. The very purpose of the free-range idea is to bring up children more responsibly and more independently. After all, at some point they’ll be adults and have to make decisions for themselves, without Mommy or Daddy or the police or CPS to hold their hands.

Over the years, we’ve been bombarded by the notion of “helicopter parents,” i.e. those who hover relentlessly around their children, never letting them out of sight in case something untoward might happen. So what the Meitivs have occasioned is a public debate between helicopter parents and free range ones.

And that, I submit, is a healthy thing.

The Meitiv family’s difficulties have stirred passionate and conflicted responses from parents, and sparked some intense digital debates.

Within hours of Meitiv’s case going public, another Silver Spring parent, Russell Max Simon, who has never met the Meitivs, said he decided “enough was enough” and started the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids, giving a nod to Skenazy.

Simon said that when he and his partner send their 8-year-old and 10-year-old to a playground two blocks from their home, they cannot help but worry. But not as some people might expect.

“We are more scared of another person calling the police on us than we are that anything bad will happen” to the children, he said.

Other parents disagree.

“I would NOT let my 6- and 10-year-old walk to a park alone. I would go with them and sit quietly on a bench nearby as they played,” Patricia Skinner, who lives in Old Town Alexandria, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “I don’t feel like a 6-year-old or a 10-year-old would have adequate skills to respond appropriately if affronted by a stranger. I wish I felt differently and many say I am overprotective. But the truth is, once something like that happens, there are no redos.”

Of course there are no redos. But Skinner’s unspoken assumption is that she, as a parent, both can and should protect her children from all negative eventualities. Both assumptions are false. As every parent knows, adults must allow children to experiment, make mistakes and try again. That’s how they learn. When they begin to walk, they fall down, and sometimes hurt themselves in the process. What’s the solution, prevent them from walking? If a child plays Little League baseball, he may get hit by a batted ball. A parent can prevent that of course, by not allowing him to play baseball.

Sound like a positive way to bring up children? Every parent knows that too much freedom is a bad idea and most know that too little is too. The art of parenting asks parents to know the difference, a task few get right every time. But helicopter parents have come in for a good deal of skepticism over the past few years, and rightly so.

“How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?” Danielle Meitiv asked in the living room of her Silver Spring home as yet another news crew dropped by to question the couple…

More than six years later, Skenazy is still pushing the conversation about giving children more freedom to experience the world. She says many parents are terrified by an outsized perception of danger, driven partly by a constant beat of repetitive crime news that makes horrific events seem much more common than they are.

Exactly. As I’ve pointed out on this site many times, the truth is that children in this society are extremely safe, particularly from the types of dangers “helicopter parents” are intent on guarding against. The chance that a child won’t be safe walking home from a park a mile away is vanishingly small. These are parents of course who think nothing of taking a child somewhere in an automobile, but traffic accidents injure vastly more children than do strangers skulking around residential neighborhoods.

But very much like that suspicious stranger, the figure of CPS darkens our parenting scene. No discussion of parenting can go far without including the state that appears ever-ready to step into our homes and intervene in our parenting choices. Parents everywhere believe that they are entitled to make basic decisions about how to raise their children, but cases like the Meitivs’ and countless others prove them wrong. As a parent you can do pretty much anything you want in raising your children up to the time you fall under the watchful eye of CPS. When you do, you’ll find your freedom of action sharply limited, as Alexander Meitiv found out the very day his children were brought home to him by the police.

Does the state do a better job of caring for children than do parents? No. Dedicated and loving as many foster parents are, foster care generally has been shown to be more abusive than parental care, even when the parents are themselves moderately abusive.

So what in the world is CPS doing harassing the Meitivs who are unquestionably good, loving, protective parents? Well, among other things, they’re ignoring the many other cases in which parents may well be neglecting or abusing their kids.

We know that’s true because, in state after state, child protective agencies are underfunded and understaffed. That means caseworkers have more cases than they can effectively handle, and that in turn means some important cases are given short shrift. The next time you read about a child, known to CPS to be at risk, who ends up dead or seriously injured at the hand of a caregiver, remember the Meitivs. Remember that that child’s caseworker probably had too much to do and that part of that excessive caseload were cases that never needed to be dealt with at all – cases like the Meitivs’.

All of that and more is coming out courtesy of the Meitivs and their unfortunate run-in with CPS. That’s sad for them, but good for the rest of us. The more we question our assumptions about children’s safety in our overwhelmingly safe society, the better. That should result in greater freedom for parents and children alike and a smaller role for government in our private lives, a role it’s not very able to play anyway.

As they say, it’s all good.

#parenting, #helicopterparents, #freerangeparents, #AlexanderMeitiv, #DanielleMeitiv, #childprotectiveservices

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