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The Opposite of Helicopter Parenting

Earlier this year, a US couple vaulted to the top of Internet parenting forums when they were embroiled in a spat with local police officials critical of their “free-range” parenting style. Alex and Danielle Meitiv permitted Dvora, 6, and Rafi, 10, to walk alone on busy streets in their affluent, suburban neighborhood. In January, CBS News quoted the boy Rafi as saying, “We can walk anywhere in Silver Spring. And it’s really fun.”

The Meitivs believe that their free-range philosophy builds more capable and self-assured children. Danielle was quoted as saying, “They need to take mini-risks in controlled situations like in the park down the street in order to grow into the confident adults we want them to be.”

The family found themselves in the news again just a couple of weeks ago when police again picked up their children for being unattended two blocks from home. Rather than return them, the children were put into a police car for more than two hours, then driven 16 kilometers to the local office for Children’s Protective Services.

The issue has sparked a furious debate about whether the Meitivs are negligent parents who are tempting fate, or whether they are the vanguard of a new parenting philosophy that opposes today’s popular, smothering helicopter parenting. This is one of those parenting topics that is likely to generate surprises in casual discussion. People who you thought would certainly be opposed may well see the logic in Danielle Meitiv’s point, and vice  versa.

I live in a peaceful, friendly neighborhood that is ten minutes from my daughter’s school. As warmer temperatures have arrived, I have begun walking my daughter to school. At first I walked her all the way to the school’s entry gate. Then I began leaving her at the edge of the school, where dozens of parents and children make their way toward the building on a safe and quiet street. Recently, I’ve begun dropping her at the first crossing guard she encounters—knowing that there are crossing guards and other children all the way until she reaches school.

This apparently is an act fraught with peril in the parenting world. Am I letting her be too “free-range”? The New York Times tackled this topic back in 2009, profiling a parent, Katie, who feels it is best to let her daughter walk two or three blocks to school, but with reservations. “Katie, too, is tormented by the abduction monsters embedded in modern parenting,” the reporter wrote. “Yet she wants to encourage her daughter’s independence.”

For now, I find myself siding with the free-range parents. Yes, there are child abductors and worse out there in the world. But I can’t watch my children like a surveillance camera. I have to build within them good judgment, situational awareness, and confidence. Time and again I see instances where my daughter looks to either my wife or myself for a cue when she should be confident enough to make a decision. We’ve struggled to kick her out of our bed for good—even as she worms her way back into it, particularly on weekends.

There is no right answer. One of the surest ways to turn a pleasant dinner party into a sullen affair is for one parent to tell another how they should parent. But when I see the police coming down hard on the Meitivs, I feel conflicted. No one wants one of their children to be harmed or endangered. But by taking small steps to push their children into the world, aren’t the Meitivs preparing them for a true and inevitable day when the children will be on their own for good? I think so.

As I watch my daughter, cheerfully greeting the crosswalk guard by name, I feel happy that she’s taking her first steps to engage the world on her own footing. Perhaps we can’t go as far as the Meitivs and allow our children to be in public parks by themselves. But if the park was two blocks from my house, I might feel differently.

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