The Raging Debate Over Whether Kids are Too Sheltered

January 28th 2015

Jessica Glassberg

When a couple in Maryland let their six-year-old daughter and ten-year old son walk one mile home from the park without parental supervision, Child Protective Services was called. The parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, claim they were encouraging their children’s independence by following a methodology known as free-range parenting. 

What is Free-Range Parenting?

Now, most people have heard the term, "helicopter parent,” where parents hover (propellers in constant motion) over their children’s playtime, homework, and pretty much all of their life decisions. There has been plenty of criticism over this parenting style as well as support.

Think of free-range parenting as helicopter-parenting’s counterpoint.

It's a term that was coined six years ago by Lenore Skenazy, a mother who notoriously let her nine-year-old ride the New York City subway by himself and now hosts her own television show on Discovery called, “The World’s Worst Parent.” Danielle explained that being a parent means constantly assessing risk management.

“Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleepover? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”

Free-range parenting doesn’t mean safety measures such as seatbelts or car seats are both literally and figuratively thrown out the window, but as the Meitivs pointed out, the chances of children being hurt in a car accident are far more likely than for them to be abducted by a stranger on their way home from the park.

And the truth is, she’s right. Yes, we should all be aware of Stranger Danger. Heck, I still have nightmares from the TV mini-series “I Know My First Name is Steven."

But it’s not as prevalent as the 1980s scared us into thinking it is. 

Danielle has also pointed out that just a decade ago, walking to the bowling alley or the library in Flushing, Queens where she grew up was the norm.

So, why was child protective services called?

According to Maryland law, “A child must be at least eight years old to be left alone in a house or car. State law also says a child must be at least 13-years-old to babysit another child. Generally, it is left up to the parent to decide whether a child who is at least eight is mature enough to be home alone.”

Okay, so this was a 10-year-old and a six-year-old outside of a confined space.

But when is too much hand-holding cutting off a child’s ability to be independent?

The Meitivs didn’t just arbitrarily drop their kids off in the middle of nowhere and say, “Smell ya later!” (which would have been weird on many levels) and force them to find their way home. They had been slowly building up to this mile long walk with shorter walks over time. They were developing a trust and increasing their children’s sense of self-reliance and self-confidence.

But can or should a 10-year-old be responsible for a six-year-old?

What if the younger child was five? Or four? What if it was nighttime? Where is the line?

Do we start calling CPS for parents who feed their children “unhealthy” snacks? Diabetes, anyone? How many chocolate-chip cookies would warrant a call to CPS? How about parents who give their kids terrible haircuts and subject them to bullying?

Yes, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed… Sexual abuse. BAD. Physical violence. BAD. Asking your toddler to funnel a beer. BAD. All very, very bad.

But is it time to start reevaluating this reliance on “over-parenting?”

When do we allow parents to know what’s best for their children?