By: Kelly Wallace, CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life.
It’s starting to feel a little bit like Groundhog Day when it comes to parents under attack for letting their children do things on their own.
The latest case? A Silver Spring, Maryland, couple is facing a neglect investigation for letting their 10-year-old son and 6-1/2-year-old daughter walk home from a playground, about a mile from their house, by themselves on a Saturday afternoon in late December.
The story immediately brought to mind the South Carolina mom arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play at the park alone while she worked at a McDonald’s and a Florida mom arrested after letting her 7-year-old walk to the park alone.
Is it just me or have things suddenly gotten way out of hand when parents are being arrested — or investigated — for doing what was considered totally normal and appropriate just a few decades ago?
‘I’m a free-range parent’
I asked Danielle Meitiv, the mother at the center of this latest national story, about her parenting philosophy.
“The funny thing is, it’s so funny to call it a philosophy,” said Meitiv during a phone interview.
“In terms of crime, I lived in a more dangerous time period and my parents lived in a more dangerous time period … so it just never occurred to me that this has to be a philosophy.”
Growing up in Flushing, Queens, in New York, she would go to the bowling alley or library at a young age by herself. “The idea that a parent would escort you somewhere, I mean my mother would have cracked up, ‘What are you nuts?’ ”
As Meitiv’s kids got older, she and her husband grew more aware of the whole concept of helicopter parenting — and the idea that kids had to be supervised all the time. She started looking up information and found the book “Free-Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy, and began following her online blog, too.
“So from that I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m a free-range parent,’ ” she said. “Again, to me, the idea is what happened to just parenting?”
‘World’s Worst Mom’
Skenazy, a New York mom, television host, speaker and author, was called the worst mother on the planet and meaner things than we could include in this article after she wrote a story in 2008 on why she let her 9-year-old son take the subway by himself.
After the uproar about her parenting, she wrote the book and started a blog, and now hosts a show called “World’s Worst Mom?” airing Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on the Discovery Life Channel.
Skenazy actually broke the story on Reason.com about the Meitivs being under investigation by Montgomery County’s Child Protective Services after they let their children walk home from a playground by themselves.
“We’ve been encouraged in our society to do what I call worst-first thinking, which is come up with the worst-case scenario first and proceed as if it’s likely to happen and that’s what happened with the Meitivs,” Skenazy said.
“Someone sees two children alone and they leap to ‘Oh my God, they’re neglected. What if they’re run over by a Mack truck? What if they’re kidnapped? There are predators all around.’ ”
Crime rates are way down from when many of us were kids in the ’70s; rape, murder, burglary and arson are all down, said Skenazy, so it’s not exactly true to think today’s world is scarier than when I walked four blocks to the candy store when I was in the first grade.
“And if we are going to say, ‘Oh my God, I would never let my kid walk outside, something bad could happen,’ well, I hope you’re saying that ‘Oh my God, I would never put my kid in the car, something bad could happen,’ because the No. 1 way children die in America is as car passengers, and yet we seem to keep that ‘danger’ in perspective, but we can’t keep the same perspective when it comes to letting our children walk outside,” she added.
‘The next evolution in their ranging’
The afternoon that thrust the Meitivs into the national spotlight was as normal as you can get. Alexander Meitiv and the kids were heading home after synagogue (Danielle was in New York for a family event) when they passed the playground the kids had been begging to go to for weeks.
This playground was going to be “the next evolution of their ranging,” Meitiv said. She and her husband felt they were ready, and so he dropped them off at the playground and told them to return home in a little while.
About halfway on their walk home, the children were stopped by two police vehicles, Meitiv said. When officers asked if they were lost or in trouble, the kids told them they were fine, that their parents knew where they were and that they are allowed to walk home by themselves, she said.
The police drove the kids home to the Meitivs’ house. Rafi Meitiv, who’s 10, called his mother crying, “Mommy, the police are here. I’m afraid they’re going to arrest Daddy,” she remembered him saying.
Alexander Meitiv was not arrested, but a few hours later, someone from Child Protective Services arrived and said the family needed to agree not to let the children be unsupervised until the matter was resolved within the agency or the children would be taken into the custody of Child Protective Services.
After a number of calls with CPS, and after CPS allegedly interviewed the Meitivs’ children without their knowledge and without a parent being present, they are still waiting to have an in-office meeting with the agency.
“This is no joke,” said Danielle Meitiv. “The threat that they can take my kids is real.”
The Montgomery County Health and Human Services Department said it is bound by state confidentiality laws preventing it from commenting on a specific case.
“Like all Departments of Social Services in Maryland, Montgomery County Child Protective Services is required to respond to all calls from community members and law enforcement about possible neglect,” the statement said.
Most states don’t have laws on the books regarding how old a child must be to be left alone. Maryland is one of the few that does, stating that children under 8 years old may not be left unattended in a house or car. There isn’t anything stipulated within the law about kids being alone outside.
This is not the first time the Meitivs have been approached by CPS. In October, a few days after Danielle Meitiv let the kids play at a playground around the block from their house and walk home by themselves, two CPS workers came to her door after they were contacted by someone mostly likely from the neighborhood, Meitiv said. That case was eventually closed.
“We have no problem with people looking out for our kids. That’s actually what people always did, look out for each other,” said Meitiv. “It’s the idea that looking out for them then becomes reporting them to the police and making it criminal … that it becomes somehow this is neglect. My kids were playing at the park.”
Reaction from parents nationwide
The story has gotten a ton of traction online, with many parents expressing outrage about another case of a parent under investigation for letting children do things on their own.
“The parents in the above referenced story have the right to raise their kids as they wish. I do not think it is a CPS issue,” wrote Annette Lanteri, a lawyer and mom of two girls in Bayport, New York, in an email.
“I personally give them credit for allowing their kids to have freedom at such a young age.”
Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a mom of two, said whether she decides to let her children walk to the park alone is “simply her business,” not her neighbors’.
“And if there is a bona fide question of neglect in my household, then Child Protective Services should be notified. Anything less than that is government overreach,” said Harley LeBon, a writer, strategist and former senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Laura Beyer, a mom of two grown daughters, said she doesn’t believe the parents were negligent in this case because the children were “obviously capable” of simply walking to and from the park.
“My thought is if those of us who care for others would simply ‘keep an eye on’ children as we drive to and fro, they would be safe nonetheless,” said Beyer. “If you see a child walking and he or she is being approached by what seems to be a stranger, pull to the side of the road and ask if he or she is OK.”
But some parents are asking questions about how young is too young to leave kids alone, and how much one’s community should play in that decision.
Terry Greenwald, a father of three in Alaska, said, “In a small town where the parent feels their children are safe I’d understand a parent allowing some freedom, at least more so than someone living in a larger city.”
“The world is a dangerous place, though, and we all need to protect ourselves and our children, especially our children,” said Greenwald.
The Meitivs hope their story helps get the message out that parents today may too often overestimate the danger and underestimate their kids.
“Our children need the freedom to grow into the happy, healthy, confident adults we want them to be, so we should trust our kids more,” Meitiv said.
Do you think it’s OK to let children walk home alone at a certain age? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.