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Where to draw the line between protecting kids and the Nanny State?

(Editor’s Note: This week’s Jane E. Brody column in WNY Refresh focuses on the same issue – though different specifics – on the following story from The Washington Post; read the Post story and watch a related video interview with the Meitivs by clicking here.)

Petula Dvorak – The Washington Post

Good thing I don’t live in Montgomery County, Maryland. Because the cops, apparently, would be at my door.

They showed up at the Silver Spring home of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv last month, followed by Child Protective Services (CPS) workers. And CPS was back again this month. And at their kids’ school.

Their crime?

The Meitivs let their kids, 10 and 6, walk home alone from a park in downtown Silver Spring. Now they are being investigated for child neglect.

The case represents one of those huge culture clashes in parenting today. On one side, the free-range parents who roamed their neighborhoods with front-door keys around their necks when they were growing up and who want the same kind of childhood for their kids. On the other side, the hyper-vigilant parents who can’t imagine letting their kids walk to school or do much of anything else without full parental supervision.

The criminalization of childhood independence is a cultural shift as significant as cellphones. And it’s insanity.

“Don’t you realize how dangerous the world is?” asked one of the four police officers who showed up at the Meitivs’ home Dec. 20, after police received a call that two children were walking alone in downtown Silver Spring.

The police swooped in and picked the kids off a busy street, where they were in the middle of their one-mile walk home from the park. One mile? Yes, it made me pause, too.

My big letting-go moment, which I wrote about in August, was allowing my two boys, 10 and 7, to walk about 500 feet to the corner store on Capitol Hill. They had the dog and my cellphone. And I’ll admit I was a wreck the whole time.

So the idea of the two of them walking a mile through downtown Silver Spring seems as brave and improbable as those guys who soar through mountains in flying-squirrel suits.

I couldn’t do it. But the Meitivs have been working on this independence thing a lot longer than I have. They are science-minded people. He is a physicist at the National Institutes of Health; she is a climate science consultant for the World Bank. They look at parenting decisions based on science.

“Every parenting decision is about risk management,” Danielle Meitiv told me as Rafi, the 10-year-old, practiced his cornet in the background. “The truth is, child abductions by strangers are as rare as alien abductions. Maybe not that. But they are much rarer than car accidents. Putting your child in a car is the most dangerous thing you do every day.”

That’s true. About 300 children are injured every day in car accidents. An average of three kids a day are killed while riding in a car. Would we argue that’s child neglect, because parents should know the risks of the road?

Probably not. And given that statistic, Meitiv didn’t think it was a horrible risk to let the kids play outside by themselves. “We’re willing to take the risk because we understand the odds,” she said.

Then, their kids started walking around the block in their quiet Silver Spring neighborhood near the local Montgomery College campus.

“Oh. I can’t even remember the first time. It just wasn’t that big a deal,” Meitiv told me when I tried to swap nervous parent stories.

Her children have played alone at the playground across the street and in their own front yard for a couple years now. So, to them, the mile-long walk wasn’t that much of a stretch.

When you take each piece of their story — a concerned citizen seeing two little kids alone in the hustle and bustle of Silver Spring and calling the cops; police receiving the report and taking it seriously (imagine the stories we’d be writing right now if the kids were in distress and the cops just dismissed it); and laws that demand a CPS investigation whenever there’s a report of neglect — each action makes some sense.

Montgomery officials said they couldn’t comment on this case in particular, but they did say there is a law against leaving young children alone inside without the supervision of someone who is at least 13. The law, the Meitivs argue, doesn’t say anything about being alone outdoors.

It’s also curious that the county schools will provide transportation, according to their website, to elementary school kids who live “beyond a mile” from school or have some extraordinary circumstance. So, does that mean the schools are cool with kindergartners walking a mile to class?

Since the incident, CPS has returned to make the parents sign a “safety plan,” in which they promised to not leave their children unsupervised. They interviewed the kids at their school and asked to inspect the family’s home for other signs of neglect.

Whoa. This has been a nationwide pattern, thumping parents who are caught not hovering.

Over the summer, we heard about a Florida mom arrested for letting her 7-year-old walk to the local park and about a mother locked up because her 9-year-old was playing at the neighborhood park in South Carolina.

Not only are we placing unreasonable demands on parents to be with their children 24/7, but we are stunting the natural development of independent humans.

It’s a different world today, you say? Why, yes, it is. Since 1993, the number of children younger than 14 who are murdered is down by 36 percent. Among children ages 14 to 17, murders are down 60 percent. Fewer than 1 percent of missing children are abducted by strangers or even slight acquaintances, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

It only seems scarier because we know so much more. From across the nation, stories of missing children are delivered to the palms of our hands every day. In the old days, it seemed so much safer because the tragic stories were largely restricted to hometown papers and local newscasts.

Are the statistics dropping because we’re so much more careful? Maybe. But probably not, given the huge number of child assaults that weren’t reported in the past because of the social stigma they carried.

The Meitivs hope CPS workers will understand their decisions were a matter of parenting philosophy, not neglect.

“All of this fear is misplaced. The biggest fear our society should have is that we’re raising kids who don’t know how to be independent,” Danielle Meitiv said. “When do you think this independent child will emerge like a genie from a bottle? It takes time.”

She’s right. No, most parents aren’t going to let their kids walk a mile alone on a heavily traveled road. That’s a little extreme.

But letting go in little steps is a human experience that has to accompany our return to sanity.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Metro section.

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