by Julia Steiny
For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school. It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C.. Not so long ago, kids walked to school. Older kids walked kindergartners. And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.
I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn't his decision, really. It was a community norm. In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents' cars snaked around the block. Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren't hurt running between cars. The Principal was often out there. Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.
It gets worse. Parents' fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture. Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.
"I am not lost. I am a free-range kid."
Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv's 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities. Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being "unsupervised." But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a "safety plan." Their lawyer's review is pending. The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment. In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are "free-range" and know what they're doing. But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.
It goes on. Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house. Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for "neglect" because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald's. How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?
Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.
By the age of 18, every parent's precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own. But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day. Parents need to start early. In teaching it's called "release model." An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together. Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo. Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.
Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes. Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance. He went to Princeton, for heaven's sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age? Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance. Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids' autonomy from that slight distance. If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we'll end up raising a generation of young adults who'll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.
The body politic has panic disorder.
Bad stuff happens. We can't prevent that. We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens. But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example. Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful. But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn't proof that tree-climbing should be banned. This is organizing for failure. It's like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he's alive when it's time for him to run the 50-yard dash.
Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism. Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won't take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk. Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job. Young adults might rely on them for help or advice. But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.