Law & the Courts

Is It a Crime to Let Your Kids Walk Outside?

(Jacek Chabraszewski/Dreamstime)
This is what happens when the state gets to decide how children should be raised.

Walking while young.

That seems to be against the law in Silver Springs, Md. As you have probably heard, parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are fighting an investigation by Montgomery County Child Protective Services for having let their kids do just that.

It was a Saturday in December when the Meitiv kids, ten and six, were walking home with their dad. (Mom was out of town.) They passed their favorite park and the kids asked dad if they could play there for a while — without him — and then head home by themselves, about a mile.

The Meitivs are a family that believes in Free-Range Kids, the movement I started (more on that in a sec). So papa said yes. But a little while later, someone spotted them walking unsupervised and called the authorities.

The cops sprang into action, scooped the kids into the cruiser, and brought them home. When dad answered the door, the policewoman asked to see his ID.

He refused. She insisted, saying she’d call for back-up. So he went upstairs to get his wallet. If he came down with anything besides his ID, the cop added, “Shots will be fired.” Nice.

At this point the ten-year-old was crying. Tough. The cop wrote up the dad and left.

A few hours later, a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker came by and told the dad to sign a “temporary safety plan.” Again, papa balked. He’d grown up in Soviet Russia. He has a thing about the state telling him how to live his private life. In fact, that’s why he came to the Land of the Free.

She told him if he didn’t sign it, she would take away the kids.

He signed. The plan was a pledge not to let the kids out of his sight for the next 48 hours, when the state would contact him again.

What law is it that prevents children from walking home together on a crisp winter day in their own neighborhood? CPS claims it is this one:

A person who is charged with the care of a child under the age of 8 years may not allow the child to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person charged is absent . . .

Apparently the authorities decided to interpret “locked or confined” as also encompassing, “outside and completely unconfined.” Which is sort of like interpreting, “Thou shalt not murder” as, “Thou shalt also be guilty if thou does not murder.” The parents had their hearing with CPS on Monday, and it was inconclusive. “I just thought it would be over by now,” mom Danielle (a longtime e-mail buddy now turned comrade-in-arms) told me. But even if it was over — even if the state dropped the case and apologized deeply for ever suggesting that it knew or cared more than the parents (a climate scientist and a physicist) about how to raise their own kids — the issue would not be over. Because across the country I keep hearing from parents who are afraid to let their kids go outside, for fear the state will snatch them.

Police have replaced predators as the parents’ worst-case scenario.

This is ironic because I began the Free-Range Kids movement seven years ago to encourage parents to do just what the Meitivs did: Send their kids outside to play. Stop being so afraid of the boogey man.

What happened was this: I let my nine-year-old ride the New York City subway alone and wrote a column about it in the late, great New York Sun. Two days later I was on the Today show, MSNBC, NPR, and Fox News, defending myself as not “America’s Worst Mom.”#page#

I started the Free-Range Kids blog to explain that you can love safety — helmets, car seats, seat belts — and still not believe kids need a security detail every time they leave the home.

The blog became a book, a movement, and, as of last week, even a TV show — World’s Worst Mom, on the Discovery Life channel. The Meitivs are just two of the many, many Americans who want to give their kids an old-fashioned, “Free-Range” childhood.

Now when folks are spooked by a fear of government intervention, what I tell them is this: These incidents are rare. That’s why they make the news. They shouldn’t stop us from sending our kids outside. But they should make us mad.

Unlike predators, the cops and CPS work for us. There is no reason they should be harassing rational, loving parents who believe independence and fresh air are good for their kids.

So our job is to rigorously protest the government’s intrusion into parenting. We must elect officials and support states that give parents the right to raise their kids as they see fit, including letting them go outside and play.

Walking while young is not a crime. It’s a right.

— Lenore Skenazy is host of the reality show World’s Worst Mom Thursday nights on the Discovery Life Channel. She is also a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids

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