Saturday, August 8, 2020
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Coming to our senses about 'free range' kids

The Maryland Department of Human Resources has issued a document to clarify when Child Protective Services should intervene in cases involving children who are found walking alone or unsupervised outdoors, Donna St George writes in the Washington Post.

“Free range” kids, as these children have come to be called, are often seen in many diverse neighborhoods walking home from a park, from school, and so on. When they make these walks, sometimes parents, older sibling or friends, or other caregivers accompany them, sometimes not.

The case of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Spring, Md., drew national attention when Maryland CPS and police held their two children, of elementary school age, for five hours, charging the Meitivs with child neglect. What the Meitivs did was allow their children to walk home alone from local parks in Montgomery County. Last month, the couple was cleared on appeal in one of two cases. But the charges themselves sparked a debate about how far the government should go when it comes to enforcing laws that are designed to protect children.

The new policy guidelines, here, reflect a clarification of existing guidelines, especially as they apply to a Maryland law that requires children under 8 in a building to be under the supervision of someone over 13. But the new directives make it clear that authorities must stay away from free range kids outdoors, except when they might be in danger.

“We are not getting into the business of opining on parenting practices or child-rearing philosophies,” the Post quoted Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, as saying. “We don’t view that as our role. We see our role as responding when a child is harmed or at a significant risk of harm. It’s all about child safety.”

How does it accomplish this clarification? By making it clear when CPS should intervene.

Children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.


We have held back on writing about free range kids, initially because the issue is just too hot. I’m not a parent, although some of my best friends are parents. Plus, the founder of “Free Range Kids” has been called the world’s worst mom. But that’s just because our favorite pastime is telling parents how they should raise their kids.

In reality, most parents I know, speaking strictly as an outsider, aren’t sufficiently ideologically committed to be considered either free range parents or helicopter parents. They do what’s best for their kids in each situation: If they believe their kids are mature and sensible enough to walk a specified distance, play outside in the yard, etc., then they act as free range parents in those situations. A situation with the same mom and same kids might present itself the very next day that will require, in the mom’s opinion, more of a helicopter approach.

But other than having no personal experience in parenting matters, the reason I’ve stayed out of the discussion has been that the issue itself just doesn’t merit the level of attention the media has given it. Look, kids are getting shot in our neighborhoods, they don’t know where their next meal will come from, they’re being over-tested, they’re suffering from autism, they’re getting measles, they’re trying to pay for college or get into good colleges, they’re unemployed and perhaps unemployable. The list goes on and on about matters that really affect kids and our schools’ and communities’ relationships with those kids. We need to focus.

I believe the government should stay out of the business of parenting, except when parents are potentially harming children, and that’s why we chose to run this story. As for parenting practices, most people I know are somewhere in between helicopter parents and free range parents. It just depends on the situation and the kids, and it absolutely has nothing—repeat, nothing—to do with what stereotypes of free range or helicopter parenting are presented in the media or with advantages or disadvantages associated with either style extreme.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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