Parents Walk On The Wild Side

Lenore Skenazy, who has been called the “World’s Worst Mom” for believing, and acting upon the belief, that children shouldn’t be bubble-wrapped, and instead should be given the freedom to do kid stuff even if there is a one in ten million chance that space aliens might zoom down and snatch ’em, brought attention to the plight of Danielle and Sasha Meitivs’ two children, ages 6 and 10.

It seems the Meitivs’ kids were snatched. No, not by child predators. Not even by space aliens. But by the police.  Again. Radley Balko explains:

Meanwhile, the Maryland couple harassed by Child Protective Services earlier this year for letting their kids walk home alone just had another frightening encounter with the agency.

Danielle and Sasha Meitiv’s children, ages 6 and 10, were picked up by police on Sunday at around 5 p.m., and taken to Child Protective Services. A neighbor apparently saw the children walking alone and called 911 to report it.

Four hours later, they were returned to the Meitivs, who had since grown frantic when their children failed to return home on time and neither the police nor Child Protective Services found the time or inclination to let them know their kids were in their custody.

As Skenazy explains, everything about the Meitivs’ story violates two related concepts, the first being the right of parents to raise their children in a way that comports with their beliefs on proper child-rearing, and the second being the need for children not to be subject to extreme control out of fear of “worst-first thinking.”

Most of the discussion surrounding the Meitivs’ children, as well as the entire “free range parenting” concept, is bound up in people’s personal choices; people either agree or disagree because of their own sensibilities, which are too often based on fears that are factually baseless but clutched so tightly to the breast that they become real to their believers.  Fighting the religion of protecting children from all theoretical harms is impossible. One can’t fight blind emotion with reason, as the two never intersect.

But Elie Mystal threw a bit of cold water on this visceral debate at ATL Redline:

More importantly, sometimes the old ways are illegal. That’s the angle of the Meitiv controversy that free range supporters seem to miss. Here’s the law in Maryland:

In Maryland, a child under the age of 8 years may not be left unattended at home, at school, or in a car.

If a parent or guardian needs to leave a child who is younger than 8 years old, the parent or guardian must ensure that a reliable person, who is at least 13 years old will stay to protect the child. Failure to provide a reliable person to babysit the child is a misdemeanor, and the parent or guardian is subject to a fine up to $500 and up to 30 days in prison.

The law to which Elie refers, Maryland Family Law §5-801, doesn’t have any actual relation to the conduct involved in the Meitivs’ case, and is limited to children “locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle,” not walking home unattended.  While not specifically illegal, though, there is a more seditious point to be made here from the application of the concept of the law, that the authority of parents to determine what “risks” are acceptable for their children is subject to government oversight and approval.

After all, even if the specific conduct involved is not expressly illegal, there remains an overarching interest in protecting children.  What that means, and how far that goes, is where the rubber hits the road.  And there are plenty of otherwise smart and kind folks who adamantly believe that their judgment is better than others, which entitles them to impose it on everyone else:

Count me in the “they are horrifically irresponsible parents” camp. Parenting via nostalgia seems like the wrong way to go. I mean shit, parents used to smoke on planes while sitting next to their kids. Sometimes the old ways are just old.

Elie is a new parent, and as such, is forced to make choices for his own child.  I could tell him a thing or two, but he’ll have to learn for himself. And that’s his right and duty as parent, to make the best decisions he can make for his own kids.

When my first child was born, Dr. SJ and I went to extreme lengths to make her world perfect, including as perfectly safe as we could. Five years later, when our second came, we knew better.

“Da-aa-aad. Jack is eating dirt.”

Shrug. “It won’t kill him.” And it didn’t.

But there is a law reflecting the creation of a crime for disagreeable parenting because some kids were left in cars with closed windows in the summer heat, and it was a disastrously bad thing to do. Kids died. So crimes were created, and they permeate societal views of parenting.  And then there are the fears of child predators, about as likely as space aliens, but worthy of criminalizing parents for not adopting societally mandated fear.

When the law against leaving a kid in a car was enacted, there were no cries about how it impaired parental choice, or how the problem was moronic parents and not the act per se.  I know, because my mother left my sister and me in the car all the time. Often with the key in the ignition. And the car had no seat belts, and the scent of her cigarettes permeated the Chevy.

No, I would not make the same choices that my mother made. And I wouldn’t make the same choice that the Meitivs made, to be honest. But then, I don’t exalt my ideas on child-rearing above all others, so much so that I would create crimes for parents who don’t do it the way I think it ought to be done.

Where were the voices when Maryland was passing this law?  Where are the voices when some state criminalizes parents letting their children play outside alone, as every kid did in my youth (“be home for dinner, dear”)?  Or are we prepared to hand over our ability to make the choices of how to raise our children to the neighbor who called the police on the Meitivs’ kids, the government and its agents?

We can certainly engage in vigorous debate over what the right choices for child-rearing may be, but when the law regulates those choices by criminalizing those that don’t toe the fearful parents’ line, the debate is over.  The only remaining question is whether the state will require a license to be a parent, with a test requiring parents to prove they’re sufficiently fearful to be worthy.


31 thoughts on “Parents Walk On The Wild Side

  1. Patrick Maupin

    There are a couple of what my wife calls “feral kids” roaming wild on our street — probably home-schooled, she thinks, because she sees them out and about during the school day.

    Like you, there are some choices there we probably wouldn’t make, and like you, we take a pretty laissez-faire view of the whole thing — in our case probably right up until the little animals start knocking over our garbage cans.

    But — and this almost certainly informs the actions of Meitiv’s neighbor — if the rascals did do something that offended our sensibilities, we would have to think long and hard about whether to confront them, call the cops, or simply ignore it if it’s not bad enough. Because these days, there are plenty of media reports of grownups interacting with children without the knowledge or consent of the parents, and then later finding themselves in as much doo-doo as any male on a college campus.

    This may also go a long way towards explaining some millenials’ warped view of society — it’s not just their parents who treated them with kid gloves when they were growing up.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are, I suppose, differing levels of feral-ness. Some, like someone else’s kids knocking over your garbage cans, implicate your interests in their actions, and you have sufficient cause to go over, knock on the door, and tell the parents that you don’t need their kids screwing with your cans.

      Others don’t involve you at all, and you have no business sticking your nose in, unless and until there is a threat of actual, imminent harm.

  2. InMD

    The incident is a wonderful illustration of how the state’s unwillingness, or maybe inability, to exercise restraint tramples all over the good intentions of activists and legislatures.

    This is the second time these kids have been picked up (I live in the area and have been following the story). If you believe the father, last time it happened the police implied they’d shoot him in front of his kids. I’m hoping it opens some eyes about unintended consequences and the dangers of “there oughta be a law.”

    I’m aware that’s incredibly naive on my part and I should probably be ridiculed for even saying it.

    1. SHG Post author

      It may be naïve, but I’m hoping the same thing you are. Maybe the well-intended folks who want to create the perfect world where no child ever gets hurt or harmed will appreciate this. Maybe not, but at least we can try to open their eyes to the unintended consequences of their good intentions.

  3. Curtis

    I grew up through the 60’s and 70’s. What some people are now calling “feral” today, was normal childhood behavior and activity, yester-year. We played in the street. We road our bikes all over town. Went to the beach. The pier. Went to the park on the weekends and played tag football, or baseball. My gawd! We even walked to school! In the evening, we walked to our cub scout and weblo den, sometimes all by ourselves. We ran all over the neighborhood playing army or cowboy and indians. I even once pointed my realistic looking WWII Tommy Gun at a cop as he drove by, and he smiled, made a gun hand, and shot me back.

    The horror.

    This doesn’t even rise to the tyranny of good intentions. Who in their right mind… yeah. Murika!

      1. Greg

        We also used the term, “Jap attack,” referring to any sneaky, underhanded maneuver made to gain an unfair advantage in a fistfight. Any kid who uttered those words today would be suspended from school, and any kid having a fistfight would be in danger of being arrested and handcuffed.

      2. Greg

        I grew up in the 1960’s and now have a young son. I do my best to let him live what was a normal life back then and now is called free-range parenting. The problem isn’t just the police, child protective services and hysterical neighbors. It’s that when he does go outside to play, he comes back home disappointed because there are no other kids outside to play with.

        1. SHG Post author

          I remember when I learned about “playdates.” The days of telling them to go outside to play with the other kids on the block are gone. Totally gone.

          1. Greg

            And usually, the playdates consist of playing quietly indoors, or at most in the backyard. I saw a poll in Reason magazine not too long ago that said the average American didn’t think children should be allowed to play unsupervised in their own front yard until they are at least 11 years old.

            [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

            Other highlights from the poll: 63% of Americans believe it should be illegal to allow your 9-year-old to play unsupervised at a public park. 43% believe it should be illegal to let a 12-year-old play there unsupervised. Not just that it’s a bad idea — that it should be illegal.

            I had no idea about any of this until I had a child of my own. It is all terribly sad. I think that by teaching our children not to trust anybody outside their own families, we are condemning them to a lonely, insular, tribal society in the future.

          2. David M.

            Playdates aren’t bad if they’re unsupervised. I remember once, my friend Rebecca and I stole her mother’s cigarettes, smoked up, barfed, then spent the rest of the afternoon shooting arrows out of my toy bow. And now, of course, we’re sad victims of child abuse.

  4. Turk

    Sorry, Greenfield, but you blew this one. Of course kids this age needed an adult to walk them home.

    Who else was going to protect them from the cops?

  5. Angie NK

    I really don’t understand what the big deal is. I grew up in the 1990s, in Maryland, and my mother has an anxiety disorder and my brothers and I were allowed to run all over the neighborhood (public housing, no less!) without any problems whatsoever. We thought our mom was overly strict when she wanted to know exactly where we’d be all day. Most other kids’ moms didn’t care, why should ours? So long as we didn’t get in trouble, right?

    1. Alex Stalker

      This was my experience too. From about 8-9 and older it was, “I’m going out, I’ll be back by dinner.” No one had cell phones back then, but I did have a cheapo watch. Is this the kind of thing that gets the cops called now-a-days?

  6. Spencer

    Not being a legal expert, I’ve never commented, and this one might not even be particularly instructive or worthwhile. With that said, as a child, I was on the receiving end of some of the same “neighborly concern” elicited by the Meitivs. When I was about 5, I borrowed my neighbor’s pedal car–it was bright red, and one of the coolest toys I’d ever gotten to use. I lived in a small, quiet New England town, in an even quieter cul-de-sac. I was pedaling around the neighborhood circuit, carefully avoiding the two or three cars that I saw pass. After less than a half hour, a police car pulled into our neighborhood, and I pulled over to get out of its way. The officer driving, however, motioned me over.

    I recognized him as I approached; I happened to know him, and he told me that one of my neighbors had called him because she thought I was “in danger.” He told me, effectively, that he knew it was ridiculous but that I’d have to put the car away now unless a parent could come out to supervise me. Not only was that impractical, it would have robbed the experience of half its fun. Instead, I elected to return my ride.

    That was a turning point for me; previously, I had held a great deference for the authority of the police–I had even idolized the officer who told me to put it away. After that, I started to recognize the arbitrary nature of authority when exercised in that manner. The point I think I’m getting at is this: beyond the issues outlined in SHG’s post that crop up whenever the state attempts to usurp the role of parent, when it happens, the authority of both is undermined. It lessens the perceived and effective authority of the parent or guardian who was prevented from giving their charge the free reign they had chosen to. Furthermore, it reinforces the perception that the state is capricious, and that it tends to hold us to the whims of those most sensitive to what they see as danger for others.

    I was raised in a very independent fashion, and I’m glad of it. I turned out better for it. The state cannot take the place of a parent, and nor should it attempt to. Besides that minor incident, my parents were mostly free to give me freedom. With that said, I can’t say my respect for lawful authority ever recovered to the same level it was at before my neighbors and the police decided that they would be better parents than mine.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ever wonder why the cop couldn’t just say, “mean ol’ Mrs. Crabtree is complaining, so tell her I told you to ‘be careful’ and stay away from her petunias. ‘Kay?”

  7. RAFIV

    State intervention child welfare cases are in the main predicated upon agency regulations and their interpretation by social workers and supervisors. The governing laws are, as a rule, vague (i.e. “imminent danger of abuse and neglect”) and are broad enough to encapsulate a whole range of culturally normative and legal behavior that a worker or supervisor may disapprove of (e.g. smoking near a child [abuse/medical neglect], letting child walk to school [neglect/imminent danger of abuse], corporal punishment [physical abuse] etc.). Moreover, the government only needs to meet a probable cause threshold for an ex parts order to remove the children. And even if you win at the subsequent hearing, the damage is done and the nightmare is just beginning. It is best if the state child welfare agency, like the IRS, never knows who you are.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ah, you broached the bit that breaks my heart.

      Moreover, the government only needs to meet a probable cause threshold for an ex parts order to remove the children.

      I can imagine nothing more dangerous to a child’s welfare, and a parent, than to have a child removed because of some bureaucrat’s application of their enabling regulations. Not that the people who work for the government aren’t the smartest, most thoughtful and compassionate people around, whose sensibilities are certainly sound enough to separate parent from child.

      1. RAFIV

        Pshaw! Government employees are the kindest of (wo)men who would never increase the number of Care and Protection Petitions filed statewide by upwards of 30% because a previously impervious rank of bureaucrat got fired. They do it for the children.

  8. John Barleycorn

    Horrifically irresponsible? WTF?!


    P.S. You need to start having more beers with Elie ASAP esteemed one or he is gonna have some bad hair days ahead with all his worries about life, the law, and the childreeen. But if the kids don’t get a traumatic brain injury because they wore a helmet and only take up vaping to get their nicotine and to get high the stress might be worth it.

    Heck, they might even live long enough to make through modern day puberty which seems to be taking place between 23-27 years old these days.

    If he keeps this up he is never going to get to experience of joy using “horrifically” and “irresponsible” together while lecturing his kids. Let alone enjoy the thrill of watching his kids up the ante and start calling his bluffs when he does. That just won’t do.

      1. John Barleycorn

        No, no, nope, no way…You are on your own with horrifically irresponsible conjecture.

  9. JD

    CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what happens if the Meitiv children — ages 10 and 6 — get reported again for walking without adult supervision.
    Even if you go with the interpretation that the law applies to kids walking, it will no longer cover the youngest kid in two years, so why keep the file for at least five years? I also wonder if it was the same neighbor that reported them both times.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s just one law. Who can possibly anticipate what potential harms (or laws) could happen over the next five years?

  10. Jerryskids

    I certainly hope that your term “seditious point” isn’t some technical legal term with which I am unfamiliar, it seems a strikingly apt phrase here. Here, the law does not say allowing young children to walk home alone is illegal – it strikes me as seditious indeed to suggest that in this country one might be in some trouble based on the idea that the law does not say it is legal, either. At least in the United States, the idea is (or used to be, or should be) that whatever the law is silent on is legal, we aren’t like the old world of kings and emperors where the ordinary subject is only allowed whatever freedom His Majesty specifically grants and all else is forbidden. If you have to seek the government’s approval to figure out whether or not you are free to allow your children to roam free, then the answer is “No”. No, you are not free. A seditious point, indeed.

Comments are closed.