By Marni Soupcoff  | National Post    It is hard for adults to look at kids today and not find them wanting when it comes to self-sufficiency and independence.

Those “I used to walk 10 miles to school in the snow when I was your age” remarks get mocked for their tendency toward exaggeration. Surely even the longest and most difficult routes couldn’t have been uphill in both directions. Yet the adults still have a point: Whether helicopter parents or a loss of a sense of community is to blame, kids today really don’t get much of a chance to steer their own ships.

They are walked or driven to and from school by parents or nannies, and they ride their bikes in circles around concrete recreation areas, while a caregiver looks on from a nearby bench. Kids today do not do things like cross busy streets by themselves, or go out to play alone with their siblings at a park.

Except that occasionally they do, and what happens next says a lot about how strong our inclination has become to turn over parenting to governments, judges or pretty much anyone but parents. You may have heard of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, a Maryland couple who have been allowing their children, ages six and 10, to walk to and from a nearby park by themselves. The Meitivs apparently believe in free-range parenting and think their kids’ development benefits from the independent fresh-air walks and play.

But the kids have been picked up by the authorities three times now for walking unsupervised by an adult, and relatively hostile encounters between Child Protective Services (CPS) and the parents have followed. On the last occasion, a couple of weeks ago, police picked up the Meitiv children on their way home from the park and brought them to CPS.

The kids were kept for hours at a crisis centre before CPS finally notified their worried parents, who didn’t know why the normally responsible youngsters hadn’t made it back home by the agreed upon time. It seems the young Meitivs are able to safely navigate all the dangers of their local streets but one: law enforcement.

Do the Meitivs have the right approach to parenting? I really don’t know. I used to walk to and from the local park “alone” with a friend when we were 10-years old — and once we got there we’d go tobogganing down steep, treed hills, while wearing no helmets. I think every aspect of that experience has since been banned, and I was a very risk-averse kid; but at the time, the whole thing seemed unremarkable and I enjoyed it.

On the other hand, as a parent, I’m not sure I could get over the guilt if I let my own children do the same and ended up having to take them to the emergency room with a broken limb, a concussion or worse. And out of my three kids, only one of them has the temperament to view such a lone excursion as a welcome adventure, rather than an anxiety-provoking outing, anyway.

But while I may not be certain that the Meitivs have the right approach to parenting, I do feel sure that they should maintain the right to parent. That means that, save for truly abusive or absurdly negligent actions (no one’s arguing the right to send a two-year-old on his own to the grocery store), the choice about when their kids are old enough to venture out unsupervised really should be theirs.

If we think the state should intervene in a family every time we’d personally make a different parental decision, then we’re basically asking the state to choose and enforce one style of parenting. We’re asking the state to be the one to decide what would be best for the development and flourishing of our children.

If you ask me, that’s a much better recipe for the dereliction of parental duty than allowing parents to make conscious, if sometimes controversial, choices about where their kids may roam.

 


Marni Soupcoff is the Executive Director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation.