On a recent Saturday afternoon, a 10-year old Maryland boy named Rafi and his 6-year old sister, Dvora, walked home by themselves from a playground about a mile away from their suburban house. They made it about halfway home when the police picked them up. You’ve heard these stories before, about what happens when kids in paranoid, hyperprotective America go to and from playgrounds alone. I bet you can guess the sequence of events preceding and after: Someone saw the kids walking without an adult and called the police. The police tracked down the kids and drove them home. The hitch this time is, when the police got there, they discovered that they were meddling with the wrong family.
Danielle and Alexander Meitiv explicitly ally themselves with the “free range” parenting movement, which believes that children have to take calculated risks in order to learn to be self-reliant. Their kids usually even carry a card that says: “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid,” although they didn’t happen to have it that day. They had carefully prepared their kids for that walk, letting them go first just around the block, then to a library a little farther away, and then the full mile. When the police came to the door, they did not present as hassled overworked parents who leave their children alone at a playground by necessity, or laissez-faire parents who let their children roam wherever, but as an ideological counterpoint to all that’s wrong with child-rearing in America today. If we are lucky, the Meitivs will end up on every morning talk show and help convince American parents that it’s perfectly OK to let children walk without an adult to the neighborhood playground.
Perhaps if they had been black and lived in South Carolina, they would have been arrested like Debra Harrell, the single mother who let her daughter go to the playground while she was working at McDonald’s. As white suburban professionals, the Meitivs experienced a lower level of intrusion, but still one that would make any parent bristle. The police asked for the father’s ID, and when he refused, called six patrol cars as backup. Alexander went upstairs, and the police called out that if he came down with anything else in his hand “shots would be fired,” according to Alexander. (They said this in front of the children, Alexander says.) Soon after, a representative from Montgomery County Child Welfare Services came by and required that the couple sign a “safety plan” promising not to let the children go unsupervised until the following week, when another CPS worker would talk to them. At first, the dad refused, but then the workers told him they would take the kids away if he did not sign.
When we lived in Calgary, I walked a mile from where lived in Deer Ridge Estates to my elementary school. I walked home for lunch, watched the Buck Shot Show and then walked back to school. At the end of the day we walked home again, always avoiding the Catholic school whose crossing guard picked on us.
No one thought that was wrong. The lawyer who lived behind us. The vet on the corner. The cop on our street. Walking a mile was normal. We walked around a mile to get the crappy mall. We walked a mile to play at our school’s park. We went about two miles to the convenience store so we could get hockey cards and those crappy hockey sticker books.
When I was ten, we used to take the LRT from Anderson Station downtown and back. We used to roam downtown Calgary. We had those Kangaroo shoes with pockets that held a quarter in case we needed to phone home.
The fact that kids these days can’t do what those same cops and child welfare workers did as children shows how much of a nanny state that cities are becoming.
Of course as The Atlantic points out, there is an alternative.