Is Raising Children As Free-Range Kids A Responsible Choice For Parents?

Recently, I was surprised to see news articles about two parents in Maryland who landed in hot water when they allowed their young children to walk home from a park about a mile from their suburban home. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are practitioners of the Free-Range Kids movement, and believe that their children will benefit from growing up without being constantly under adult supervision. The Meitivs' children were ten and six at the time, and were picked up by police when they were halfway to their home, after someone called in to report the kids walking alone. The family was found to be responsible for child neglect in that case, and a few months later ran into trouble again, when they allowed their children to play in the park unsupervised, and the kids were picked up by the police and held by Child Protective Services for several hours.

This, and other stories of parents being investigated, has stirred up a nationwide debate over appropriate parenting behaviors in our modern world. At the center of the issue is whether or not it's safe to allow kids to engage in certain activities without constant adult supervision. Most adults beyond a certain age probably remember playing with their peers unsupervised, and being granted a certain amount of freedom, which has fallen out of fashion with many parents today. I personally recall it being normal for me and my friends to hop on our bikes and ride several miles together, or to walk to each other's homes. We definitely played at parks and in each other's yards without adults present to monitor us at all times, and that was in the 1970s and '80s, not some mythic "Good 'Ol Days" period from decades before.

Kids' lives are complex, and we developed our own social groups as we learned what activities were safe and which contained elements of risk. According to many child development experts, children need to be allowed a certain amount of freedom in order to learn important life skills such as a sense of independence and willingness to take chances. There has even been a recent study that seems to indicate that creativity is diminished by too much adult supervision, so the balance between protecting a child from the real dangers in our world and allowing them enough independence to thrive and learn seems to be an important one. A very interesting article which appeared in The Atlantic profiles "Adventure Playgrounds," which allow children to play in an environment where they can interact in ways that many modern parents would probably consider risky. Proponents of such playgrounds believe that they teach kids to measure risk and consequences, important things for young children to learn.

Nearly all parents fear for the safety of their children, or at least want to protect them from the perceived dangers of our society, so it's fair to ask whether the world is a more dangerous place today than it was in previous generations, and if it is, what is a reasonable way to protect kids without smothering them?

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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.