Every now and then something crosses my desk that leaves me awestruck by the stupidity of people.
This week, it was another news piece about the case involving the Meitiv family, of Silver Spring Maryland. They came to my attention months ago when some fool turned them into CPS (Child Protective Services, for my non-American readers) for letting their children, who are 6 and 10, walk home from the park alone. I read the article and shook my head, but came away encouraged, because here were two, obviously intelligent, and intentional parents who were, “doing it right.” They’d carefully prepared their kids to make that walk, with ever increasing incremental freedoms. Surely, when investigated, they’d be applauded, not castigated, for raising such capable, responsible young people.
Not so much.
Apparently, the powers that be, at CPS, have found them “responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect.” The article, on ABC News, then goes on to report that, “Maryland Child Protective Services then accused the Meitivs of neglect, saying unless they committed to a safety plan, the kids would have to go into foster homes. In Silver Spring, leaving anyone under age 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect.” Of course in the first article, we see that the Meitivs do have a safety plan, including cards that their kids carry and a very careful, graduated plan to prepare them for an unsupervised one mile walk in familiar territory.
I sat in my chair, mouth hanging open, absolutely gobsmacked.
Leaving anyone under the age of 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect?
The next sentence that passed through my mind is unprintable due to liberal punctuation with (well deserved) profanity.
Are you kidding me?
Let’s examine some of the ramifications of that statement, shall we?
According to that definition, all of the following constitute neglect in Silver Spring, Maryland:
- Leaving your preteen kid home, doing her homework, while you walk two blocks to the corner store
- Hiring a 16 year old with a first aid course under her belt to mind your toddlers for the evening while you go out with your partner on a date
- Allowing your 17 year old to take the family car on a day trip to the beach with a friend or younger siblings
- Sending your 12 year old around the block to shovel the driveway for a couple of elderly neighbours who aren’t home yet during a snow storm
- Sending an 11 year old to the corner store for milk
- Leaving your young children in the care of your (very capable) 15 year old daughter and 16 year old son, while you spend two days in the hospital with their gravely ill father
Are we really ready to say that any minor person who is without direct adult supervision is neglected?
Do we really believe that bubble wrapping kids for 18 years is going to prepare them from the real world?
In one breath there is much complaining about how the twenty somethings cannot get it together. In ever increasing numbers they are living at home and relying on parents well past a point that seems reasonable. In the next breath we’re saying that no one under 18 can be safely left alone.
You can’t have it both ways, people.
Human development is a progression through an ever widening orbit around a parent, who holds the child’s universe together and does the delicate dance of push and pull, give and take, so that the helpless baby eventually has the confidence and capability to do the same for the next generation. It’s not easy. Kids mess up. Parents mess up. There’s not a road map from A to B.
What seems obvious, to me, is that you cannot keep a kid on a short leash for 18 years and then expect them to automatically function with unlimited freedom in the real world. You can’t do everything for them and with them and then expect them to magically pick up the threads of their own lives and take personal responsibility.
What’s Wrong With America?
“When I was a kid, “free range” wasn’t the newest parenting trend, it was how mothers remained sane. We were kicked out of the house and told not to return until dinner hour unless there was blood or bone.
My brother and I were all over the place, digging things up, riding our bikes for miles, rowing, sailing, fishing, ice skating, and generally running amok. We were turned loose in Central American markets to do the family grocery shopping before we were teenagers and allowed to snorkel all around our Mexican bay without my parents hovering, in spite of the fact that we were keeping a pet shark in a tide pool.
You know what drives my children absolutely insane: the nanny aspect of American culture. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, or get in the least bit creative with their life paths as young people without some well meaning middle aged American woman freaking out about whether or not they’re going to live through the afternoon without Mommy right there, bubble wrap and bandaids in hand.
My kids had their own boat, in Canada, when they were 8 and 6 and they were often gone for hours. Sometimes, I’d wake up in the morning and they’d have cobbed the jar of worms from the fridge, two apples and a peanut butter sandwich between them and they’d already be long gone. One time, my nine year old son didn’t come in off of the river for eight hours. He was alone. He was fishing, and thinking.
My daughter took off backpacking without us for the first time when she was 14, across an international border in Central America, with some other intrepid teenage friends.
My sons are beginning to make a habit of going away to work for a month at a time in the summer.
My 14 year old made a nine hour return trip into Guatemala City to pick up his grandparents last month.
My 12 year old ranges between about six towns spread out around this 50 km circumference lake we’re living on at the moment.
And yet responsible, well thought out, intentional parents who have carefully prepared their children to walk a mile to a park, in very safe Maryland, are investigated by the police.
There are two active Amber Alerts and 11 children listed on the government missing persons site for Maryland There are approximately 1,304,339 children in the same state. Run the odds of your child being abducted between home and the park they know well and are prepared to walk to.
Parenting from a place of fear is what is wrong with America. Is it our responsibility to protect our children? Yes. Do bad things happen? Yes, but very, very rarely.
Which is a better response: to legislate against children, and parents, cowing them into fear based submission with police investigations over lovely afternoon walks to the park? To cause our children to believe that the world is a frightening place and no one can be trusted? To keep our kids so sheltered that they are always safe but then lack independence when “the time comes” for them to brave the real world?
Or… to encourage parents to wisely, sanely, carefully prepare those little people to become as independent as they can? Teaching them to manage independence in graduated doses, with safety nets in place, so that they learn intelligent risk-benefit analysis, develop the ability to assess a given social situation and make a wise choice, and grow slowly and naturally into their ability to handle what the world throws at them?
While there are a few notable exceptions, parents can, largely, be trusted to have their kids’ best interests at heart making healthy choices regarding their growth and freedom accordingly. This business of micromanaging families because we’re afraid, or because there is a statistical minority that can’t keep their heads in the game is insidious.
As a former child, it makes me want to riot and rebel. As a parent, it’s offensive to me. It factors into our decision to raise our children outside US borders for a good portion of their childhoods. We want them to see that the rest of the world is not like this.”
Forty years ago, no one who saw two school aged children walking, during daylight hours, with no one crying, would have even turned a head.
Kids were allowed to exercise their freedoms, within reasonable boundaries, within the community and it was expected that they’d be just fine. If they weren’t fine, some adult community member would step in and tell them to stop it, or report to their mother, or drag them home by one ear to face the music.
What shocks me most about this case is that NOTHING HAPPENED.
The kids were fine. They were doing their thing. The parents weren’t worried. The kids weren’t giving anyone a reason to worry. They were simply growing in their orbit and demonstrating that they were growing into responsible community members. So why is this news?
It’s scary to me that perfectly normal and healthy development is now categorized officially as neglect and parents who are intentional and safely parenting their kids are suspect.
This is one big reason we’ve raised our kids the way we have.
That is to say, largely outside of the USA and the “neighbourhood” mentality.
If we had raised our kids in a neighbourhood I’d have been Danielle Metiv. I’d have had CPS at my door, and probably more than once. Why? Because I am extremely committed to my parenting philosophy of treating my kids as much like adults as they can stand and expecting them to rise to the occasion, and I’m not going to be bullied into anything less.
When our babies were born we had actual conversations in which we laid out the long term plan as best we could. Our stated, and active goal when I had four kids under four and our house was a three ring circus exploding with clowns was this:
By age 16 our kids will be, basically, adults.
We wanted, by age 16, to be able to lift all restrictions and find our kids able to manage their own lives and “practice” adulthood for their last couple of years, so that if something went really awry, we’d still be there as a safety net. The jury is still out, obviously, as we’ve only got half of our kids past that point. Maybe that won’t work out with all four of them, but with the first two, it’s worked just fine. We’ve seen it work in numerous other families who begin as the Metiv’s have.
We regularly get two kinds of email that I don’t talk very much about:
The first, expresses admiration at who our kids are and what they are accomplishing. The second expresses amazement and anger that we could be so irresponsible as to raise our kids the way we are.
To the first, I always reply that the kids are doing what they’re doing because THEY have worked hard and made it happen. We just support, cheerlead, pay the bills and keep feeding them. They are their own people, with goals and dreams that pull them forward, if they are allowed to chase them. Capable kids are capable because someone says to them, “I don’t know if you can do that… try it, and let’s see!”
The second, I read aloud to the children and allow them to respond. Having been a child raised free-range before it was cool, given as much adult responsibility as I could handle, and encouraged to pursue anything I wanted, so long as it was healthy for me and I could pay for it myself, I know that my kids are going to be just fine. That kind of childhood was the best gift I’ve ever been given, by the coolest people I know.
Mrs. Meitiv, if you are reading this:
I have a few things to say to you, as a fellow mother who’s just a little bit further down the path:
You’re doing great. Keep going. I know this whole situation must feel like a nightmare, but you’ve been given a platform in this and I’m so glad to see you using it to speak some common sense to a nation full of people who need to hear a message not based in fear.
Your kids will thank you. I know, because I’m that kid and I thank my parents. And I know because my mostly grown children thank me. They thank me even more after we’ve spent a few months in the USA and they remember what it’s like to live under the tyranny of other people’s fears.
Your kids are going to be fantastic. They’re going to be whoever and whatever they are. They’re going to be brave enough to climb mountains and overcome obstacles that take your breath away because you let them walk to the park without freaking out. Keep gently encouraging them forward, no matter what that looks like to other people. Then, when people are amazed because your 17 year old graduates “early” and is off to cross oceans under sail, pursuing his university work and certifications that are career worthy at the same time, and they’re freaking out about his age and safety, you can just smile. You can remember the 9 year old in the boat and the discussion with Grammy during hour six of his absence, about whether or not we should go check on him. You can remember his incredulous question when you nonchalantly canoed by him, several kilometers from home, and he hollered across the waves, “You didn’t come to CHECK on me, did you??” Oh no, of course you didn’t come to check on him. You were just having a nice canoe with Grammy. Eventually, the results can, and do, speak for themselves.
To the rest of us:
- Can we all please work together to remember that the vast majority of parents are doing their best and overwhelmingly, their best is good enough.
- Can we please work together to common understanding, even if we disagree on philosophy and methods?
- Can we please remember to think the best of people first, rather than assuming dysfunction and disability?
- For the love of god can we PLEASE stop calling CPS or 911 on one another when there is no emergency? Those services should be reserved for the rare occasions when they are truly warranted, and when they are warranted, then their community service is saving lives.
I understand that judgement calls are required. Sometimes something looks “bad” when it’s not. Sometimes things look “fine” when they are not. I get that. I would love to think that we all have enough common sense to agree on the concept that if two kids are walking together (safer than one child alone) in broad daylight (safer than at night) and no one is crying (there’s no indicator of distress or injury) that those kids are just fine and not suffering abuse or neglect of some sort. Perhaps common sense is not so common.
I’ve thought a lot about how to end this piece. I’m going to just put it out there and say the thing that is loudly whispered in the community of traveling families we participate in, and the thing which is a vocal reality in our lives:
THIS is one of the big benefits to raising our children, through their formative and experimental years, outside of the USA.
I don’t look over my shoulder elsewhere in the world when I slip my twelve year old kid five bucks and tell him he is welcome to make his way home, 20 kilometers or so, from one side of our lake to the other (walking a kilometer, taking a boat through four towns, walking another kilometer, letting himself into the house and firing up the gas stove to make a snack for himself after the long journey). I don’t wonder if anyone is going to think I’m not properly supervising him.
I don’t worry about taking off overnight with my husband and leaving my older teens in charge of the house and grounds for 72 hours or so.
I don’t wonder if someone is going to report us for neglect when we let our kids take a day trip of their own choosing to order new leather shoes, have some smoothies, do a little household shopping and maybe jump off the cliff into the water on the way home.
What’s more, that fear is not transferred to my kids.
The message that they get is that it’s perfectly normal and expected for them to be out and about, doing their own things within the community, interacting with people of all ages, and that they are trusted and capable.
- They don’t look over their shoulders for scary adults or truant officers.
- They go about their lives, just like everyone else.
- When they need help, they ask for it.
- When we think they need help, we offer it.
- They aren’t saddled, unnecessarily, with baggage full of “you can’t” type restrictions.
Instead, they are supported in their efforts to demonstrate that they can in any one of hundreds of capacities. Isn’t that the point of growing up and out? Demonstrating all of the things that you can do within the community as you transition to adulthood. I’ve always thought it was.
My kids feel legislated against when we’re in the USA. They feel the restrictions placed on them by society acutely, and I don’t mind telling you that they don’t like it. Why? For the same reasons YOU would not like it: because they are capable of running their own dog and pony show, and they know it.
As parents, we need to band together to put down this kind of nonsense intervention from the state. We need to begin voting with our convictions and changing the parenting culture by creating likeminded communities where children can grow in healthy directions and be as free as many of us were as children. We need to support families like the Meitivs in their vocal opposition to obvious stupidity. We need to refuse to be bullied and to raise our kids in a culture of independence and community minded competence, not a culture of fear.