Philososplainin’ #2: Letting Kids Do Stuff Themselves


Making the rounds this morning is the news of parents who are being investigated for neglect for allowing their children, ages 10 and 6, to walk, by themselves, the one mile from a park to their home in Silver Spring, Maryland. There have been a rash of such stories recently, it seems, most notably one about  a South Carolina mother who was arrested (!) for allowing her daughter, age 9, to play at a park while she was at work. The Maryland parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitivs, a climate science consultant and a physicist, respectively, “say they believe in ‘free-range’ parenting, a movement that has been a counterpoint to the hyper-vigilance of ‘helicopter’ parenting, with the idea that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to progressively test limits, make choices and venture out in the world.” The mom in the South Carolina case, Debra Harrell, who worked at a McDonalds, did not appear to be able to afford reliable and stimulating child care for her daughter, and so would occasionally let her play at the park, which is about a six-minute walk from their home.

Different places, different reasons, different races, different sanctions, but at least one common issue: the government taking action against parents for granting their children a greater-than-currently-normal degree of independence.

Our previous edition of Philososplainin’ was on the relatively trivial issue of reclining airplane seats. As I put it last time: “philosophy professors are often keen to emphasize the practical value of the philosophical skill set in navigating the world: logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and imagination, the ability to countenance alternatives and make needed distinctions, etc. ‘Well,’ the world might ask, ‘if philosophy is so practical, what has it done for us lately?'” And so the idea is to”take an issue that is being widely discussed by the populace at large and see whether philosophers can step in to help make progress on it.”  Can we?

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Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I think its unclear what exactly the issue is here that we are supposed to tackle. First, there’s the law itself. Technically, these parents were breaking the law (a law that I personally think is insanely paternalistic, but it is the law), so it’s hard to criticize the police and CPS given that. Second, there’s the issue of parental rights to raise children according to values that conflict with the broader society. These rights are increasingly under attack, and it affects parents of all stripes. On the right, religiously orthodox parents are increasingly under attack with regard to childrearing according to their values (recent example: Dan Savage suggesting that criminal charges should be brought against parents in Cincinnati Ohio for their refusal to allow their teenager to transition as a teenager); on the left, crunchy, hippie parents are increasingly under attack for their education, birthing, and medical choices (recent example: a couple who chose to do a homebirth had their children, including their infant, taken from them by CPS for “neglect”). Third, there’s the general issue of how to deal with those subcultures whose values conflict with the broader, majority culture. Fourth, there is the issue of community, or in these cases, lack thereof. In all of these high profile cases of “child neglect”, cops were alerted by other parents within the community or neighborhood. These parents not only don’t know who the other neighborhood kids and families are, their first instinct is to assume the worst and call the cops rather than talk to the kids or try to alert the family or help in anyway. Of course, we are less inclined to help one another when we do not know one another and are not personally invested in one another’s well-being. Fifth, there’s the seismic shift that has taken place culturally with regard to parenting in this country. This cultural shift towards heavily supervised, hyper-parenting has been driven by upper middle class families that tend to be both smaller (one or at most two kids) and have greater material resources than larger and poorer families. Sixth, there are all the problems with CPS and the near absolute power they wield over families. I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear: there’s a whole host of complicated issues here, and it’s unclear which one we are supposed to be discussing. The title of the post suggests that perhaps the issue you want us to discuss is whether we should let kids do stuff themselves and when–i.e., whether these parents are right that kids should be “free range.”

Anyway, perhaps you could clarify, Justin.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

A central idea of the “free-range” talk I’ve heard is that free-range parenting is actually just normal parenting from a certain time in the past – I’ve heard dates that range anywhere from the dawn of the post-war nuclear family circa 1945 to as recently as the 1980s – and that “we” (where “we” seem to be white and middle-class) have gotten away from those ideals. I’m curious as to whether there’s been any critical investigation of the truth of that claim. Is “free-range parenting” importantly similar to the way parenting used to be, even for the fairly narrowly specified group of middle-class white people?Report

Skef
Skef
6 years ago

This is indeed a change: in the 70s and early 80s kids of these types of ages (particularly when paired with a slightly older sibling) did routinely go out unsupervised. So one question is whether it is actually less safe now than then for children when they do this. Weighing against its being less safe is that crime rates are generally lower now than then, and also lower when it comes to the specific crimes such children might be susceptible to. But you could argue, in favor of it being less safe, that some of those crimes are crimes of opportunity, so the fact that many fewer kids play on their own makes it much more likely that the ones that do will come to harm.

That it isn’t clear what the answer to this question is, combined with the fact that there hasn’t been much change in actual laws on the books*, calls Frey’s assertion that these parents were breaking the law into question. Given that many people were legally Aing 25 years ago, and the same vague laws are in place now as were then, and now Aing is claimed to be illegal, there should at least be a question as to whether Aing is actually illegal now. (You might call this “mild originalism”.) If the vague laws are written in terms of endangerment, it’s not unreasonable to expect the state to establish the nature and extent of the danger, and not just rely on community attitudes.

But you can make a different argument that sending your kids out on their own like this should be illegal, even if it is about as dangerous as it was then. Lots of playground equipment was judged too dangerous and ripped out in the late 80s and the 90s. It had presumably not become more dangerous than it had been in the past, but it had perhaps become among the most dangerous things a given child faced about which something could easily be done. Basically, after (in the United States) largely dealing with deadly viruses (*sigh*), getting folks to use seatbelts in their cars, etc., that equipment was plausibly next on the list. The shifting in what is seen as worth preventing is an overall positive trend — it means there are fewer tragedies. It is also, I take it, what makes older people decide that younger people are “too soft”, even though they don’t have that attitude towards themselves in relation to people older than them (those social interventions just “made sense”). You might also argue that “the community” is in the best position to make these sorts of judgments.

Against that sort of reasoning, you might counter that at this point there are now no clear candidates for making things safer that are worth the cost. There are certainly candidates if you ignore cost — driving in general stands out — but these days we’re not really using community values to judge danger as much as cost. So, if a large enough percentage of parents decide that helicopter parenting is worth doing, then people — including politicians, judges, etc. — start considering it as not too costly in deciding what should be expected of others. But this is a different sort of social process, and arguably far more coercive than the earlier one, given that people do, in fact, generally try to avoid easily avoidable tragedies. And the anti-vaccination movement is perhaps the most stark example of the inability of contemporary communities to make reasonable cost/benefit judgments (although one might still hope that particular trend will eventually self-correct).

* This is just my sense, from reading articles in recent years about these controversies, in which the laws are generally couched in general “welfare” terms and don’t seem targeted at the behaviors that have become controversial. I could be mistaken and indeed Frey could have far more information about this stuff than I have.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Hi Jennifer! There’s a lot you raise there, and I have a couple of comments, but these are mostly footnotes to the main point.

On point 1: It’s not clear to me that the parents were technically breaking the law, or at least that the law is written clearly enough that it could be clear that the parents were breaking it. The South Carolina law under which the woman was arrested forbids “plac[ing] the child at unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child’s life, physical or mental health, or safety” and “wilfully abandon[ing] the child”; the first clause seems like an unrestricted judgment call as written and the second clause seems as though it refers to permanent abandonment (elsewhere abandonment is defined as “desertion”; in any case given the defintion of “child” if it applied to a nine-year-old it’d also apply to a fourteen-year-old).

The Maryland code does provide specific age limits in saying that it is illegal to leave an 8-year-old or younger in a building or vehicle without the supervision of a 13-year-old or older. But this does not obviously apply to the case at hand. There may of course be applicable case law establishing exactly what the boundaries are here, but there may not.–It is notable that the working-class black woman who was not entirely obviously in violation of the law was arrested and her child was immediately taken by the Department of Social Services, while this did not happen to the middle-class white parents who were at the least edging up to the law as written.

On point 2: There are apparently more factors involved in the home birth case than just home birth, as described here (though one wonders how many of the previous contacts with law enforcement also had to do with disagreements about parenting; the eczema thing seems awfully intrusive, and along the lines of your fourth point it seems presumptuous of the neighbors to have called paramedics on after the home birth). Also this seems like a case that doesn’t fall neatly onto the left side of the issue; the family’s crunchy practices seem to be inspired by their orthodox religion, and the father stated that God had given him authority in his own home.

Anyway aside from those points you’ve definitely pointed out a lot of issues that this raises, and aside from the details of the particular case there’s definitely a question as to the degree of control parents should have over their childrearing practices.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
6 years ago

Philosophy can offer some basic tools of critical reasoning in this case. As the parent in question says, driving your kids around in the car really does put them at a much, much higher risk of harm, including death, than does letting them walk to the park. To apply a law prohibiting child endangerment consistently, one would have to cite parents for taking their kids on long-distance car trips, or in rush hour traffic on a regular basis. There is a lot of confirmation bias going on when people, parents and lawmakers and law enforcement alike, take much more notice of an abduction, and let it figure more prominently in their thinking as a risk, than they do the ongoing rates of injury and death due to motor vehicles.Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
6 years ago

Perhaps a bit of context here would be helpful. Silver Spring, MD is in the Washington Metro area. Georgia Avenue, where the kids were walking is a major artery that stretches from DC proper well into the suburbs (past Silver Spring and as far as (I believe) Olney). There are at least four lanes of traffic and in some stretches six — Google Earth suggests that this is a strip with 6 lanes. Depending what stretch you are on, traffic is variable. Google Earth also shows that this area is transitional from residential to downtown Silver Spring, which is quite developed. Depending on where the kids were walking, I can see why someone might have been concerned for the safety of the kids in traffic. I’m not clear calling the police was the right move, but who knows what the background experience of the caller was. The police, once called, have to address the issue. And once the police are involved they have to contact CPS to follow up. What is puzzling about this case is the persistence of CPS. It seems sort of obvious that the kids are not at risk, but I wonder if the parents’ assertion of an ideological stance — free-range parenting — and their insistence on protecting their privacy might have exacerbated the situation. From the point of view of CPS, that behavior can seem like red flag. At the same time, I can appreciate the parents’ frustration at being challenged about what seems to them to be sensible and well thought out parenting strategies. But we can imagine parenting decisions that seem sensible from within the framework, that are much more problematic from outside of it — the cases Jennifer Frey notes in her point three. CPS have to deal with particular cases and evaluate the particulars of any given case within a given — presumably broad — framework. I’d be interested to know what their terms of reference are.
I also want to add that it certainly does seem that the world has changed. I grew up in that part of Maryland in the 70s and 80s, and was trusted to fend for myself after school from about age 9 or 10, as both my parents worked. We were called latch-key children, and given that we had a name, you can bet there was a public debate about the virtues and vices of raising kids that way.Report

Paul Hammond
Paul Hammond
6 years ago

I think one of the best ways that philosophical skills can be helpful in a case like this is by helping us distinguish independent moral questions that could be raised. So here are three questions you might ask about this case that one could easily imagine have to be answered separately from one another:

1. Is it morally permissible for parents to allow their children to engage in (arguably) dangerous behaviors like this?
2. Is it morally permissible for the state to or its agents to use its coercive power against parents who allow their children to behave in such ways.
3. Is it morally permissible (or required) to call the police if you see children engaging in behaviors like this.

Obviously there are other ways we could think about this issue, but one place I think philosophy can help is in pointing out that the answers to these three questions don’t necessarily go together and that different kinds of considerations are relevant to answering each. Obviously some people will want to say “Yes, No, No” and others will say “No, Yes, Yes,” but it’a also possible to think “No, No, No” or “No, Yes, No.” Thinking through the differences among those positions and the different reasons people might have for holding each would be what I would expect philosophers to be particularly good at.Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Lisa–the evolution of the idea of the latchkey child is interesting. (I too was left to myself after school from about age 8 in the 70s and I think I remember the term.) The term itself seems to date from the 40s, and something like this from the early 80s seems concerned mostly with the development of the children; but when did it start getting criminalized? There was a notorious “Home Alone” case in 1993 of parents leaving two children at home when they went on vacation to Mexico; this article about the case mentions about a million reports of child neglect a year involving parents leaving children unsupervised, but “most concern working parents who can’t afford child-care, or addicted parents who leave their children alone while searching for drugs and alcohol” (what a juxtaposition!) That “Home Alone” case did apparently lead to tougher child neglect laws in at least some cases.Report

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

Frey’s mention of the law actually gets to the heart of the matter. There are all sorts of laws, and then there are the laws that have enough political backing to be enforced. These are not at all the same things. Just ask Jamie Dimon. The real question is: What is behind the political will to interpret laws as enforceable in certain contexts that, even twenty years ago, would not have been so interpreted?

Consider that across that time we have had an ever-expanding militarization of our police force, combined with the propagation of the more general belief that citizens require both greater protection and, hence, greater supervision by the public authorities. When parents allow children to play in parks by themselves, to walk around in the world unsupervised and so forth, they are placing a greater amount of trust in the children themselves and in their fellow citizens than they are supposed to, given the supposedly very dangerous world we live in. It is their violation of this collective consciousness of fear and this collective desire for protection that drives the political will to prosecute them.

There is, incidentally, a pretty interesting article in the New Yorker from a few years back on this topic. The author of that article–who is an upper-class white woman, I believe–allowed her son to travel by himself all around New York on the subway system. I am not sure if she has yet to be prosecuted, however. We can allow the elites their freedom, I suppose.Report