So why all the fuss about the Meitivs (The Bystander Effect: What is it like to be the neighbor of a “free-range kid”?), the Silver Spring parents who have made their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter the poster children for free-range kids everywhere? (Put aside the kids for a moment and think about the poorly named movement. Did nobody stop to remember that free-range chickens end up wrapped in plastic with their heads chopped off?)
I, for one, look forward to seeing this case in court. Not because I think the parents should face legal consequences for letting their kids run wild, but to clarify what constitutes parental neglect.
State law requires that a child under the age of 8 left in a house or vehicle must be in the care of a reliable person who is at least 13. But the law is silent on children left alone outdoors. So it would be nice to have a legally binding judicial ruling on whether Montgomery County Child Protective Services officials are exceeding their authority by inserting themselves between parents and their children when they are dumped in a park or left to wander the streets.
In the meantime, I offer this song.
Back to the kids-run-wild, I mean free-range issue. As I recall my own experience, leaving your kids to their own devices is not always a good idea. While your nice kids might grow up to be independent and strong-willed, other not-so-nice kids might grow up to be predatory and sociopathic.
My neighborhood, three subway stops north of downtown Silver Spring, had a mix of both. Some kids survived seemingly unscathed, while others preyed upon them. At least one grew up to be a convicted pedophile. Now he's one of four registered sex offenders within a two-block radius of my home.
Somehow (no mystery really, for a white, middle-class kid in Montgomery County), I managed to emerge on the nice side but easily could have ended up not so nice. Sure, there were a couple of trips to the hospital before I was 10 to get stitches to various parts of my face when I crashed my bike. But if you put a kid on two wheels, he's going to get hurt sometimes, right?
But my bike transported to me to bigger trouble, beginning when I was about 8, when my mother would send me to the drug store with a note to buy her cigarettes. Pretty soon, I figured out I could pocket the 35 cents if I grabbed the smokes from the open rack a few steps from the door. It wasn't long before my friends and I were shoplifting pieces from plastic model cars or lighters or road flares (Why did nobody get suspicious when a bunch of kids walked into an auto parts store without an adult?).
This went on for years, despite the unexplained growth of my 45 record collection and calls from cops to my parents to tell them to pick me up because I was caught stealing banana incense at Wheaton Plaza or an ID bracelet from W.T. Grant.
Of course, those were more innocent times, when an innocent-looking kid could catch a break. Not once did I face criminal charges, thanks to cops who exercised discretion in making arrests. But they always called my parents and I eventually grew tired of the inevitable belt on my butt.
Now, if Montgomery County cops showed the same discretion in the case of free-range kids and simply drove them home, this wouldn't be an international story and the Meitivs wouldn't be in a position to make a buck off their kids' notoriety by suing whomever they plan to sue.