Perspective | Magazine

What’s so bad about free-range parenting?

Looking at the controversy over child supervision — or lack of it.

Shutterstock/Damon Shaff

After my 13-year-old daughter got into a theater program in Boston last summer, I sent one of the other moms an e-mail about the possibility of carpooling. She said her daughter takes the T. Wow, I thought. Do people do that? Send their kids into the city on public transportation? By themselves?

Looking back, I’m not sure why I was surprised. I grew up in small-town Western Massachusetts, where my parents didn’t think anything of letting me ride my bike a couple of miles to hang out with my friends. My husband had a similar experience in Southern California, where he biked a 10-block paper route from the age of 10. And I know a lot of kids in Boston, as in other cities, have little choice but to use the T to get to school or elsewhere. But you don’t always think straight when it comes to your children.


My husband and I talked it over, trying to balance the risks and uncertainty with our daughter’s pretty high maturity level (and the fact that she has a smartphone). Ultimately, we decided she was savvy enough to navigate the route from Newton to Boston as long as she mostly went with a friend.

So, we loaded a CharlieCard, and she was off on the Green Line at 8 a.m. every day. Usually, she timed her commute with a friend, though there were times she rode alone. Sometimes, depending on her camp’s schedule, she wouldn’t return until the evening.

As parents, we were excited and anxious, feelings Danielle and Alexander Meitiv probably had when they let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk home from a neighborhood park in Silver Spring, Maryland. But their effort to allow their children to explore the world on their own (so-called free-range parenting) has resulted in several clashes with the police and Child Protective Services (CPS). After their children were picked up by police halfway through a mile walk home, the couple was found responsible for “unsubstantiated” neglect. In April, the kids were spotted alone again — that time, the police ended up holding them for more than six hours.


Two weeks ago, the Meitivs announced plans to file a lawsuit against the authorities. “We must ask ourselves how we reached the point where a parent’s biggest fear is that government officials will literally seize our children off the streets as they walk in our neighborhoods,” their attorney said in a statement.

Cue the facing off (and mouthing off) in the court of public opinion. Supporters of the family started a Facebook page, “I Stand with the Meitivs against CPS,” where one wrote “Children should be allowed to become more independent through parents’ discretion,” warning that the alternative is adults unable to make their own decisions. “Sorry,” wrote a critic, “I now think every pervert has seen them all over TV as well as the kids and they will be waiting for them to show up at the park alone!”

The problem with this fear of stranger danger is that it is statistically unfounded. Of the nearly 75 million children in the United States, an estimated 115 of them a year will be victims of the kind of kidnapping you read about in the news, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Far more missing children either run away from home or are abducted by relatives or acquaintances. But in the age of helicopter parenting, fear often trumps facts.


To Ruth Paris, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, labels like “free-range” and “helicopter” are both problematic. Generally speaking, she says, parents should make decisions based on their family dynamics, not because they subscribe to an ideology. “What children need is a balance between permissiveness to explore the world and limits to contain the world,” she says. “We know it’s a continuum. You want to be in the middle, depending on the parents, the kids, the parents’ style and needs.”

When my husband and I let our daughter take the T, we were continually moving the boundaries, letting go and reining back. Thankfully we got through it without too much drama — beyond the normal teenage kind.

There was the day the T unexpectedly pulled her trolley out of service in Brookline, forcing her to get off and wait for another train, for instance. But she navigated that OK (it made us more nervous than it made her).

Then there was the time she told us she was taking a later train home when her real plan was to take an earlier one and hang out at the coffee shop with her friends. A little white lie, a few more gray hairs, but a teachable moment. Once we sorted out the details, she understood that her freedom to ride like a grown-up was predicated on her levels of transparency and responsibility.


We like to think our daughter learned a few things last summer, and maybe we did too. Time to reload the CharlieCard for this summer.


14 — Illinois

12 — Delaware

8 — Maryland

6 — Kansas

No Specific Age — Massachusetts

Source: State regulations, guidelines, or recommendations

Related coverage:

• Kids, supervision, and where to draw the line

• Kind of time you spend with kids important, study says

Jill Radsken is a freelance writer based in Newton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.