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When kids go alone, a walk to park can end in investigation, arrest

If this spring and summer is anything like 2014, I suspect we'll see more of these incidents where parents are investigated or even arrested for letting their kids just be on their own.

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Hopping across the stumps at Blue Jay Point County Park's nature play area
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Here we go again ...

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are back in the news. They are the Maryland parents who were investigated last year for allowing their 10-year-old and six-year-old children to walk by themselves to a park one mile from their house.

The couple's children were picked up early Sunday evening, according to reports. Their parents became worried when they didn't return home at 6 p.m. from a local park as expected, according to a story in The Washington Post. It turns out that the kids had been picked up by police, sat in a police car for a couple of hours and were eventually taken to a social services office, the story says. The parents were reunited with their kids at 10:30 p.m. after a pretty terrifying few hours.

If this spring and summer is anything like 2014, I suspect we'll see more of these incidents where parents are investigated or even arrested for letting their kids just be on their own.

The Meitiv's are followers of the so-called free range parenting movement, a philosophy that essentially promotes the way the majority of today's parents and grandparents were raised. The movement was launched by Lenore Skenazy, who famously wrote about allowing her nine-year-old to ride the New York City subway on his own and was roundly criticized for it. She's since launched a website, written books and has her own reality TV show called "World's Worst Mom" on Discovery Life where she helps parents who are "too terrified to let their kids go," according to the description.

Free-range parents, her website says, are "fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape."

That pretty much sounds like the ideal way to grow up, doesn't it? Parents raising kids who turn into self reliant, confident people who aren't afraid and worried about everything that might possibly hurt them.

Back in the 1970s, I was a free-range kid.

Between the ages of two and four, I roamed the campus of a small college in upstate New York. I wasn't completely by myself. I was with my friend, who was one year older.

Our father's were professors at the college and we lived on campus where our parents were dorm parents. Today, I have vivid memories of those two years - rolling our dolls down a big hill, swinging on a big rock swing in the student center, getting scolded by the security guard for eating too many crab apples, getting stung by a bee after I stepped on it to see what would happen, peeking in classrooms and dorm rooms.

By the time I reached kindergarten or first grade, I was walking a half mile to my elementary school with another buddy, who was two years older than me.

At age 7, I was riding a public bus in a small town in southern France, where my father was on sabbatical, to and from my school by myself. In the beginning, I didn't speak any French.

By 12, during my first sleepover camp, I was roaming the streets of Paris by myself, eating a lot of chocolate croissants and loving every minute of it.

When my older daughter was age two, I asked my mom how she ever could have let me out of her sight at such a tender age. With my own toddler, I couldn't imagine letting her walk around outside by herself, crossing streets and meeting strangers. In fact, my own mother can't believe she did it either. She shakes her head about it now.

Here's the thing: We were just fine.

I also was just fine walking to school and riding that bus and roaming the streets of a major city. Were there some moments and incidents that were a little scary? Yes, there were a few.

As a grade schooler, tween and teenager, however, I hadn't been coddled by my parents, spending nearly every minute under their watchful eye. I had years of experience on my own, developing my confidence, understanding my instincts and actually using those instincts.

OK ... let's take a moment here to actually consider the dangers out there. There are cars and drivers, who might not stop at a stop sign or red light when our kids are crossing. And drivers today are distracted by their smartphones and other gadgets, which didn't exist decades ago. (I've hammered into my children the importance of looking both ways and being very careful at intersections).

And there are strangers. But, according to countless experts in this area, only a few children are kidnapped every year in stranger abductions. (I've also hammered into my children the need to trust their instincts, never take anything from a stranger, never go near a stranger who is attempting to engage with them and never help a stranger unless a trusted adult is with them).

According to the Polly Klaas Foundation, 99.8 percent of the children who go missing come home. About 90 percent of missing kids have misunderstood directions, miscommunicated their plans, are lost or have run away. About nine percent are kidnapped by a family member. About three percent are abducted during a commission of a crime such as a robbery or sexual assault. In those cases, the child often knows the kidnapper.

Each year, a fraction of one percent are kidnapped in the abductions that we see on the news. Of those 100 kids, about half come home, the Foundation says.

Yet, as I write all of this about my gloriously independent childhood, my efforts to teach my kids and the statistics on child abductions, I'm not so sure my kids are having a free-range childhood. They play outside on their own and with friends in the neighborhood, but not much more beyond that.

At Christmas, I let my kids - ages 9 and 5, at the time - walk two to three blocks in my neighborhood by themselves to deliver Christmas cards. As I watched them from a window, crossing the street, I turned to my mother-in-law with a little fear in my voice and said "They'll be OK, right?"

"I think it's great," she replied.

And when we lost our bus stop, I wrote to the school system unsuccessfully to get it back, citing the dangers of the busy traffic on our half-mile walk to school on streets quieter than the ones I crossed as a first grader.

And when a neighbor asked if our fourth graders and good friends could walk home from school together on their own, our answer was no.

And when I talked about it with friends over dinner the other week, one said, half joking: "You can't do that. You might get arrested!"

Indeed. Last summer, a mom was arrested for leaving her nine-year-old to play at a park while she worked at McDonald's in South Carolina. In Florida, another mom was arrested for letting her seven-year-old walk by himself to a park a half mile from their home.

There are two parks a half mile from my house. Should I let my kids walk to them?

This all comes just a generation after a child's ability to walk alone in the neighborhood was considered a sign he was ready for first grade.

As quoted in a post on ChicagoNow.com, a 1979 book titled "Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant" lists skills needed for rising first graders. They include a child being able to count eight to 10 pennies or stand on one foot with his eyes closed. But here's one that stood out to the writer and any parent today: "Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?"

I was 5 in 1979 and I could definitely walk that far on my own. Can my 5 1/2-year-old today? I'm not sure. I've never let her. Would I? I don't know. Would somebody report my child to the police? Would I get arrested?

And here's the end. I'm not sure what the fix to all of this is. We need a return to common sense. We need to trust our kids more. We need to be watchful of everybody, all of the time. (Put those phones down!) And maybe, we all just need to relax.

Sarah is a mom of two and Go Ask Mom's editor.


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