I’ve had three friends forward me a story that appeared in The Washington Post on January 14, 2015, asking me to comment on it. It’s a story about how two parents in Montgomery County are under investigation for letting their children go out by themselves. Specifically, they are being investigated by CPS for neglect because they let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk home from the park – a distance of about 1 mile.
Now these parents practice a parenting philosophy called “Free Range Parenting,” which is means parents don’t supervise their children every minute of the day, letting them build self-confidence and competence by doing things by themselves and taking on bigger responsibilities without parental assistance. It has been seen by some as the counterpoint to “Helicopter Parenting.”
Free Range Parenting may feel very familiar to my generation (Gen-X) because it is in the same parenting vein as we were raised in. We walked home or took the school bus home from school by ourselves or with our group of friends, let ourselves in with our own key, made our own snack, did our homework, and got our chores done. All before Mom and Dad came home from work. Some of us even started dinner. Can I get an “Amen” from my fellow Latch-Key Kids?
So what happened that made this a crime?
To have free range, or latch-key, kids requires an explicit or implicit social contract with the community at large that states “we are all responsible for the care and safety of our children and our community, not just the parents.” This harkens back to the day when adults could correct the behavior of children who are not their own without fear of a lawsuit or someone knocking on your door to yell at you for interfering. To have such a contract requires a certain amount of trust between strangers that has been all but beaten out of us. Starting with the sensationalization of kidnappings in the late 1970s and early 1980s and continuing through the barrage of school shootings in present day.
The Helicopter Parent emerged as a response to these and other horrible crimes. One result is a law in Montgomery County that prevents children younger than 8 years old from being left home alone or in the care of someone younger than 13. It is this spirit of the law that the family from the article has apparently violated. There is no such law here in Switzerland. It is just known that, typically, children around the age of 8-ish can go to the park by themselves. Can and are expected to. It’s how children become responsible adults. My neighbor warned me when we first moved in that I were to accompany the 9 year old to the park someone would come and talk to me. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule so parents here have to use their judgement. What a novel concept.
It wasn’t always the case that parents hovered over their children to protect them from every danger imaginable. How many of us rode our bikes around the neighborhood for hours on end? How many of us walked to the ball field with their glove and bat over their shoulder for pickup game? Who only came home for dinner when they heard their mother shouting for them? I myself spent my summers down at the creek with my friend Susan hunting for crawdads and with my cousins building dams in the cow pastures. And we (including my mother) ware happier for it.
Is it reasonable to expect parents to be with their children 24/7? No, it is not. Even animals in the wild leave their young from time to time.
Is it fair to punish parents for using their judgement to raise their children just because their philosophies don’t match the accepted norm or there are circumstances that make parenting laws unreasonble? For example, a friend of mine had a daughter with the flu. She left her daughter in her bed and ran to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her. Technically it was against the law for her to leave her daughter home alone, but would it have done more damage to bring her along for a 20 minute ride and bring her inside to infect who knows how many people? (Because, of course, it is against the law to leave your child in the car alone, too.) I have also been know to let my oldest run some items to the next door neighbor’s house. Technically, this is against the law, too. However, I saw it as the first steps in me being able to trust my son to follow instructions and act in a safe manner and his confidence was boosted because I had trusted him with something important to me.
Parenting isn’t just about love. It’s also about fear and risk. Getting over your fear and letting your children take risks. Risks aren’t just for kids. You have to take risks, too, or you will never be a confident parent. And that is the biggest problem our generation faces. We do not have confidence in our parenting or in our community. We have been made to fear what could happen to our children. We have forgotten what could happen for our children. It’s time we started to remember.