Rearing “Free Range” Children

It’s high time for another screed about how America, at least as I understand it, seems to be vanishing.  This time, the precipitating event is a news story about parents in Silver Spring, Maryland who are under investigation by Child Protective Services because their kids walk the streets alone and play unsupervised in a park.

The parents recently were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” because they let their kids — a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old — walk home, alone, in December.  Now the parents are being investigated again because the two kids were playing together in a park at 5 p.m. on Sunday and another parkgoer reported the “unsupervised children.”  The parents, who are both scientists, believe that their “free range” approach will encourage their kids to develop independence and self-reliance.

UJ and I started walking alone to school in Akron when I was a five-year-old kindergartener and he was a six-year-old first-grader.  Mom packed our lunches, bundled us up if the weather required it, and set us off on a mile-long trek to Rankin Elementary School.  This was viewed as normal behavior in those benighted days of the early ’60s, just as it was viewed as normal in the ’70s when UJ and I rode our bikes to our junior high school in Upper Arlington.  Nobody talked about “free range” children back then because every kid was a “free range” kid — even though the “free range” phrase wasn’t invented until years later in connection with chicken.  Amazingly, kids were viewed as capable of walking to school, riding bikes to their friends’ houses, and playing sandlot baseball or a game of tag in a park without having the watchful eyes of parents on them every waking moment.

At some point that all changed . . . and in a poisonous way.  Now we apparently view our neighborhoods — even in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, D.C. — as so inherently dangerous that children can’t be alone on the streets even during daylight hours, and what’s more if kids are spotted outside without parents nearby our instinct is to report the parents for child neglect, even if the kids seem healthy, happy, well-adjusted, and fully capable of playing by themselves.  Rather than making our streets safe for unsupervised kids — if in fact they are truly unsafe, as opposed to the focus of overblown concerns brewed in the fevered imaginations of helicopter parents who must arrange every element of their kids’ lives — our approach is to investigate parents and put them on the watch lists of government agencies just because they don’t monitor their kids’ every move.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want to live in Silver Spring, Maryland, where busybodies apparently feel good about reporting unsupervised kids in a park on a sunny Sunday afternoon and authorities dutifully investigate such claims and hassle responsible parents who hope to encourage their kids to develop a sense of independence.  Is every town in America like Silver Spring, Maryland these days?  Have we really gotten to the point where parents who simply let their kids play outside unattended are viewed as so irresponsible that we need to sic Big Brother on them?  What kinds of lost adults are the constantly cosseted kids of modern America going to turn out to be?

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