Last week, scientist Danielle Meitiv (a consultant to government agencies on climate science) and her husband Alexander (a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who goes by Sasha) were found responsible for “unsubstantiated child neglect” after letting their 10-year-old son Rafi and 6-year-old daughter Dvora walk home by themselves, during the daytime, on a sidewalk next to a lively main street, from a neighborhood park a mile away from their Maryland home. An unknown someone called 911 after seeing the kids walking without an adult. A squad car swooped up the kids, and four more police vehicles pulled up to the Meitivs’ home. When Sasha went upstairs to get ID, as an officer demanded, he was told “shots will be fired!” if he didn’t immediately comply or if he did anything suspicious.
Rafi called his mother, crying, saying the police were going to arrest his daddy. (The police had also told Rafi that “there are creeps out there that are just waiting to grab children if they’re walking by themselves.”) Two hours later, before Danielle could get home, a representative from the local Child Welfare Service showed up with a temporary plan of action for Sasha to sign. When Sasha said he wanted a lawyer to look at it first, he was told that if he didn’t sign instantly, the children would be taken away. He signed.
The “unsubstantiated child neglect” ruling means that Child Welfare will maintain a file on the family for at least five years, and if the parents do anything else that might be deemed a danger to their kids (such as let them walk parentless in the neighborhood again) there could be as-yet-unspecified consequences.
Now, Maryland is a bit of a special case because it’s one of only a few states to specify when a child can be left home alone. (In Maryland and North Carolina, that’s at age 8; in New Mexico and Oregon, 10; Illinois, 14.) But as Danielle has pointed out, her kids weren’t breaking the law as written. The law specifically prohibits leaving children “locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle.” Her kids were in a park and on well-trafficked sidewalks in a populated neighborhood. She and her husband have hired a lawyer to fight the ruling—and to fight back against a culture that often seems determined to scare parents and children out of any sense of perspective, competence, or independence.
Danielle Meitiv is a lot like me: well-educated, Jewish, a proponent of family dinner and limits on screen time. (She may be a better parent; my kids eat a lot of sugar, unlike hers.) But where I live, New York, doesn’t have specific restrictions on letting kids be home alone. New York’s Office of Family and Children’s Services says, “there are no straightforward answers” to when kids can be left alone because “children develop at their own rate, and with their own special needs and abilities.” Parents should use “reasoned decision-making” about how mature a child is, how ready the child is for responsibility and whether a child knows how to contact emergency help. I think I’m a good judge of my kids’ readiness and cluefulness. I used to think I couldn’t wind up in the Kafka-esque situation the Meitivs are in. But now I’m not so sure.
Like the Meitivs, I am a proponent of Free-Range Parenting, my friend Lenore Skenazy’s name for a philosophy that encourages kids’ independence and nondirected play and counters hysteria about risk with facts, statistics, and reason. I let my kids walk by themselves to school (one block for my 10-year-old, 12 blocks for my 13-year-old), the bodega (two blocks) music classes (eight blocks), and Hebrew school (17 blocks). I let them start walking together when Josie was 9; I let Maxie start walking alone at 8. Both girls can take the bus by themselves. Josie has taken the subway solo; Maxie hasn’t yet.
Sure, I’ve often gotten the side-eye from fellow parents, horrified by my laxity. But I’m not lax. I’m not lazy. I want my kids to be self-reliant and confident in their competence and problem-solving abilities.
Yet now I’m afraid to do what I know is right for my family. Not just because of what happened to the Meitivs. Two weeks ago, I got called into the office of my synagogue’s education director. He told me that a woman had seen Maxine waiting for the bus after Hebrew school play rehearsal (which ended at 8 p.m.) and gotten upset that Max was too young to take the bus alone. She’d quizzed my daughter on where she was coming from and where she was going. Maxie had pointed to the synagogue a block away. The next day, the woman had called the synagogue and identified herself as a producer for ABC News (the education director told me he’d Googled her and indeed, she was) and said that the synagogue needed to know that there was a neglectful parent in the congregation.
Thankfully, the education director knows me and backed me up to the TV lady. Maxie had already told me about the incident: The woman had given her $10 to take a cab home, and Maxie had walked home as she often did, so she wasn’t sure what to do with the money. We put it in the tzedakah box.
Judaism is pretty clear on the fact that fostering children’s independence is vital. The Babylonian Talmud tells us we have three obligations when it comes to childrearing: Teach your kid Torah. Teach your kid to earn a living. And teach your kid to swim. Wait, what? “What is the reason?” the Talmud queries rhetorically. “His life may depend on it.” If we take this as metaphor, what this means is that you won’t always be there to rescue your kid. So, you need to teach a kid to deal with adversity.
And to be honest, there was some adversity that night. Josie had borrowed Maxie’s keys and failed to return them to her backpack, and my mom, who takes Maxie to Hebrew school, had forgotten her own keys to my apartment. So, Maxie went to Hebrew school without her MetroCard, which she keeps in her Hebrew tote, which was in the apartment that she and my mom couldn’t get into. (I was at Tablet, in case you’re wondering.) So, after play rehearsal, while waiting for the bus, Maxie suddenly realized she’d have to walk home. And she was cold and tired and cranky, and she got teary-eyed, and that was when the woman spotted her. Maxie bucked up and walked home. It was fine. She was infinitely more upset by her interaction with the woman than she was by walking.
But I don’t let her take the bus or walk home from rehearsal anymore. The incident made me so anxious that someone could report me to Child Protective Services that I’m willing to curtail her growth as a competent person. And that sucks.
Because as a culture, we are behaving like paranoid freaks. The United States is safer now than it was when we were kids. According to federal statistics, the U.S. homicide rate declined 49 percent between 1992 and 2011, bringing it back to 1963 levels—a time before most us parents of young children were born. A 2014 study published in the Journal of American Pediatrics looked at the rates of 50 different types of violence and crime between 2003 and 2011; 27 declined significantly. Everyone agrees that violence has plummeted since the 1990s. (Experts don’t know exactly why, but theories include the success of domestic violence programs, more widespread use of psychiatric medicines, the decrease in high-school drop-out rates, and the increase in the use of contraception.) Kidnapping by strangers is wildly uncommon; in New York State, for instance, the Division of Criminal Justice Services announced that 20,309 children were reported missing statewide in 2011; exactly one of those children was confirmed abducted by a stranger. Most—94 percent—were runaways, most of them teenagers. When kidnappings do occur, they are almost always committed by family members or friends. And should we talk robberies? Those dropped nationwide by 10 percent in 2010 after dropping 8 percent in 2009. How about child murder? Overwhelmingly (97 percent) likely to be committed by a family member or close friend. As Skenazy points out, statistically speaking it’s way more dangerous for a child to be at home than out in the world.
And yet most of us are convinced that the world is a scarier place now than when we were kids. I blame the media; I blame general helicopter parenting; I blame our litigious society. You know who I don’t blame? Jewish mothers. The movement to stop overprotecting kids and encourage them to develop grit is being led by Jewish mothers, Danielle Meitiv and Lenore Skenazy among them. They actively contradict the stereotype of the Jewish mother as Rottweiler—one that comes from a very specific time and place in history. It’s a post-Holocaust phenomenon, from a time when Jewish mothers had good reason to be clingy. Misogynist and ageist Jewish Mother humor really blossomed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Jews were acculturating, getting wealthier, moving to the suburbs, beginning to intermarry, and feeling embarrassed of their old-country, Yiddish-inflected parents. Young Jewish men were getting more opportunities to tell their stories on a wider pop-cultural stage; stand-up comedy and sitcoms let them work out their Mommy issues publicly.
But if you go look at the longer span of Jewish history, Jewish mothers haven’t been clueless, grasping homebodies. They were working mothers, who knew the lingua franca of the various countries they lived in; they were the ones who did business in the big world, letting sons and husbands study. Jewish mothers have always been seen as loving and demanding, but the portrait of blindly selfish hyper-clinginess is relatively new. And when Jewish mothers got to tell their own stories—as Gertrude Berg did for decades in The Goldbergs—the portrayal was far more nuanced.
And ironically, the most “Jewish-Jewish” moms, the Haredi ones, are actually the most free-range. They teach older siblings to essentially rear younger ones; they give kids responsibility and sharp knives and expect them to get from point A to point B without babying. When you have a family the size of a softball team, you can’t ferry them hither and yon all day.
Look, it’s clear that encouraging kids’ executive function (the ability to coordinate complex tasks and meet goals independently) early in life pays great dividends down the road. Studies have shown that fostering independence makes kids happier. A review of 70 studies involving of 200,000 kids found that overprotective parenting was correlated with kids getting bullied. And University of Virginia researchers found that having autonomy made kids feel good about themselves and helped them stand up when someone else was being bullied. And finally, our overscheduled kids simply need time to explore, walk, play. Schools cut gym and recess to do more test prep and to punish misbehaving students; our first lady exhorts kids, “Let’s move!” but they have fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, especially when they aren’t even allowed to walk to the local playground.
Aristotle (not a Jew or a mother, but a mensch) said, “Virtue requires practice.” If we don’t let our kids practice the virtue of independence, they won’t have a chance to show us all they’re capable of—morally as well as intellectually and physically. We need to listen to Lenore Skenazy and Danielle Meitiv, and we need to let our kids go.
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