Over the past few months, the debate has intensified between parents who believe in so-called “free range children”—or allowing their kids to roam outside the house unsupervised, as children who grew up in decades past often did—and those who think that practice is criminal.
The contentious issue reached critical mass over the summer, after Debra Harrell, a 46-year-old McDonald’s employee from South Carolina, was arrested and temporarily lost custody of her nine-year-old daughter for letting her spend time by herself in a nearby park while Harrell was at work. Harrell became something of a cause célèbre on the issue (a crowdfunding account on the website YouCaring.com raised over $45,000 for her legal defense and future childcare), which has been simmering at least since the 2010 publication of the book Free Range Kids, by Lenore Skenazy.
Skenazy has remained a significant figure on the issue, and yesterday, at libertarian website Reason, she drew attention to an Austin woman who is the latest to face potential legal trouble after her kids were spotted outside of their house without direct adult supervision. As that woman, author Kari Anne Roy, wrote on her blog:
I looked out the front door window and saw a woman I did not know — and my six-year-old.
I whipped the door open, trying to figure out what was happening. The woman smiled. My son frowned. And as soon as the door opened he flew into the house, running as far away from the woman as he could.
“Is that your son?” she asked with a smile.
I nodded, still trying to figure out what was happening.
“He said this was his house. I brought him home.” She was wearing dark glasses. I couldn’t see her eyes, couldn’t gauge her expression.
“Yes. He was all the way down there, with no adult.” She motioned to a park bench about 150 yards from my house. A bench that is visible from my front porch. A bench where he had been playing with my 8-year-old daughter, and where he decided to stay and play when she brought our dog home from the walk they’d gone on.
“You brought him home… from playing outside?” I continued to be baffled.
According to her blog, Roy was visited minutes later by a police officer, who, Roy says, “asked why I thought it was OK for him to be unsupervised. She took my ID. She wrote down the names and ages of the children.” A few days later, Roy says, they were visited by a CPS worker.
Skenazy, writing about the incident, notes the kicker from the CPS caseworker and draws a harsh conclusion:
It was only last week, about a month after it all began, that the case was officially closed. That’s when Roy felt safe enough to write about it. But safe is a relative term. In her last conversation with the CPS investigator, who actually seemed to be on her side, Roy asked, “What do I do now?”
Replied the investigator, “You just don’t let them play outside.”
There you have it. You are free to raise your children as you like, except if you want to actually give them a childhood. Fail to incarcerate your child and you could face incarceration yourself.
“Just don’t let them play outside” is fairly brutal parenting advice, but it’s worth noting that it’s not exactly an unpopular opinion. Following Harrell’s arrest, 68 percent of 1,000 parents surveyed by Reason agreed that nine years old is too young to be in a park unsupervised, and 63 perecent of those parents think that twelve is too young as well. Those are presumably not the numbers that the organization was hoping for when it conducted the survey, but they certainly highlight the disconnect between the two sides—and the passion with which they hold their positions.
There are those who are outraged at the government overreach of possibly going to jail for allowing their children to do things that they themselves did growing up—that, indeed, may be the source of some of their more fondly recalled childhood experiences. And then there are the majority of respondents to the survey, meanwhile, who believe it’s negligent to let children face any number of unknown dangers without a parent or trusted adult to provide supervision.
These are deeply held differences that, for the most part, can’t be resolved through discussion (and anyone who tried to do so with friends on Facebook probably learned that the hard way) because they deal with fundamental questions about how to raise children. Parents who fear “stranger danger” for their kids are unlikely to be convinced by statistics that reveal that just 0.01% of abductions are what the Center for Missing and Exploited Children describe as “stereotypical” kidnappings, or those carried out by strangers. (Perhaps based on the argument that the focus on preventing parents from leaving their children unattended is the reason for the low numbers.) On the flip side, parents like Skenazy, who feel that the best way for their children to develop self-reliance and independence is to be granted the opportunity to experience those things firsthand, are going to continue to be galled by the fact that their own philosophies in parenting are increasingly considered criminal.
For Roy, it never went that far—and people on each side can disagree about whether that was just her own good luck, or if the CPS worker who failed to take custody of her children was going too easy on her.
(note: an earlier version of this story misidentified the percentage of abductions as 0.0001%.)