Nation

‘Free-range parenting’ case unleashes national debate

WASHINGTON — Two days after the story of their children’s unsupervised walk home from a park became the latest flash point in an ongoing cultural debate about what constitutes responsible parenting, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were still explaining their ‘‘old-fashioned’’ methods of child-rearing.

They eat dinner with their children. They enforce bedtimes, restrict screen times, and assign chores. They go to synagogue. More controversially, they let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter venture out together to walk or play without adults.

‘‘How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?’’ Danielle Meitiv asked in the living room of her Silver Spring, Md., home as yet another news crew dropped by to question the couple.

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She and her husband are facing an inquiry for neglect, they say, after allowing their children to walk together unaccompanied from a Silver Spring park along busy Georgia Avenue toward home, a mile south.

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They made it halfway before police picked the children up, alerted after someone called.

The parents’ tale of being investigated by Montgomery County (Maryland) Child Protective Services for allowing a walk from the park has lit up social networks and set off a national conversation about parenting styles, children’s safety, and government overreach.

It has pointed up seeming contradictions in law and expectations. Why, many parents asked, are mile-long walks permitted on school days if they are a problem on a Saturday afternoon?

At the center of the whirl are the Meitivs, believers in ‘‘free-range’’ parenting, with its ideas that children learn to be self-reliant by progressively testing limits, making choices, and roaming the world without hovering adults. Danielle Meitiv works as a climate-science consultant and Alexander Meitiv is a physicist at the National Institutes of Health.

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The idea of free-range children has been around since 2008, when New York journalist Lenore Skenazy set off a firestorm with a piece titled ‘‘Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone’’ and developed a following for pushing back against what many saw as an overinvolved ‘‘helicopter parent’’ culture.

More than six years later, Skenazy is still pushing the conversation about giving children more freedom to experience the world.

She says many parents are terrified by an outsized perception of danger, driven partly by a constant beat of repetitive crime news that makes horrific events seem much more common than they are.

Federal statistics show that the violent crime rate has fallen dramatically from its peak in 1991 and is about what it was in the late 1960s but lower than in the early 1970s, when many more mothers were at home and children roamed freer.

In the past, children stayed out for hours, slept in backyard tents, and wandered their neighborhoods.

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‘‘These are things we all did on our own, and now we don’t let our children do, and there is no real or rational reason except we’re fearful,’’ she said.

‘How have we gotten so crazy that what wasjust a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?’

The Meitiv family’s difficulties have stirred passionate and conflicted responses from parents, and sparked some intense digital debates.

Within hours of Meitiv’s case going public, another Silver Spring parent, Russell Max Simon, who has never met the Meitivs, said he decided ‘‘enough was enough’’ and started the Maryland Coalition to Empower Kids, giving a nod to Skenazy.

Simon said that when he and his partner send their 8-year-old and 10-year-old to a playground two blocks from their home, they cannot help but worry. But not as some people might expect.

‘‘We are more scared of another person calling the police on us than we are that anything bad will happen’’ to the children, he said.

For many parents, the debate has rekindled memories from their own childhoods about how they wandered freely, explored on their bikes, and played games with neighborhood friends until dusk.

They lamented that children today do not have the same opportunities.