Do parents have the right to raise their children to be self-reliant?
That’s a central question behind the case of a Maryland couple who recently have been under investigation by Child Protective Services for allowing their children, ages 10 and 6, to take a planned walk home from a park without adult supervision. You can get more details about the case here.
It turns out that Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are attentive parents who understand that the best way to cultivate self-reliance and independence in their kids is by allowing them real-life experiences. Since we live in an age of over-protective “helicopter” parenting, the Meitivs have faced public criticism as well as a CPS investigation. But they also are getting a lot of positive attention for shedding some much-needed light on the truth that the more we shelter kids and prevent them from practicing their skills when they’re ready, the more we stunt their ability to be independent in the future.
Isn’t that what responsible human parents—and various other mammals—have always done to perpetuate the survival of the species? Well, yes. But this is now a punishable “style” that must -go by a name: “free-range parenting.”
Here is how local authorities in Montgomery County, Maryland, reacted to the Meitivs’ children’s walk from the park. They picked up the kids in a police cruiser, even after the kids explained the situation. CPS threatened to take the Meitivs’ children from their home. One official who showed up at the home unannounced called police (six patrol cars!) when the father questioned her right to come in without a warrant. Another CPS bureaucrat interviewed the children at school without the parents’ knowledge or consent.
Aside from being an attack on children, parents, and family autonomy, we have here a full frontal assault on the very ethos of self-reliance.
Self-Reliance Is the Bedrock of Parental Rights
We ought to ask ourselves how future generations can learn to be self-reliant if children are so protected from risks that they never learn self-regulation. At some point we have to understand that nanny states are in the business of killing the spirit of self-reliance. And since family autonomy is the primary source of learning self-reliance, parents are a companion target.
The Meitiv case has created a lot of debate about parents’ rights and where to draw the line when it comes to safety and the degree of supervision children need, based on age and development. But parent rights and self-reliance are two sides of the same coin. If we care about the rights of parents to raise their own kids, we should place a high premium on the ethos of self-reliance and absolutely must cultivate it in our children. Otherwise it doesn’t get passed down to future generations.
The Meitiv case also illustrates two radically different social views. In one we build our own lives as independent, self-reliant citizens. In the other, a central authority takes care of—and owns—“its” citizens.
You will recall “The Life of Julia” infographic used in the 2012 Obama re-election campaign. Julia was a poster child promoting life-long dependence on the government. Big Brother virtually led her through an entire life coasting down a path of least resistance. That’s the fate of us all if we don’t start teaching real self-reliance in our young.
Julia is ignorant and disinterested in the idea of self-reliance. She’s a rote conformist who has exactly the sort of docile temperament central planners have always hoped to instill in child and adult alike. They have a vested interest in a society filled with people unaware and unable to take care of themselves. In this context, CPS overreach in the case of the Meitiv family fits right in with the script.
But to understand where we are headed, we ought to take a look at where we’ve been.
Back When Willie Mays Warned Kids About Blasting Caps
Not that long ago nobody questioned a child’s right to play unsupervised or a parents’ responsibility to help young kids learn to navigate a risky world. One of the most stunning examples of this spirit is the old “blasting caps” safety campaign that started in the 1950s.
Public service announcements would directly warn kids: “Don’t touch that! It’s a blasting cap!” The PSAs took for granted that children roamed about on their own and might play unsupervised a little too close to places where blasting caps (dynamite detonators!)—could be lying around—perhaps at quarries or near construction sites, or even in the home if one’s father was a construction worker. The spots heightened everyone’s sense of caution, but they spoke directly to the children as free and responsible agents when at play. Baseball legend Willie Mays himself lent his voice to the “Don’t Touch That!” campaign.
In this astonishing spot tagged as “An Institute of Makers of Explosives Service,” you can watch Willie Mays informing boys and girls about blasting caps and their dangers and what to do if they see one.
Parents of those times also looked out for one another’s kids as friendly neighbors, not as state informants. And PSA’s directed at the parents tended to be gentle reminders—like telling them at around 11 p. m. that the kids should be home already: “It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” (There’s an updated version, too.)
Did the Baby Boomers Ruin Parenting?
In a Quartz article, “How Baby Boomers Ruined Parenting Forever,” author Sarah Kendzior says the phenomenon of helicoptering came out of the boomer generation and claims two social shifts caused it:
The first was the comparatively booming economy of the 1990s, with low unemployment and higher disposable income. The second was the public perception of increased child endangerment—a perception, as ‘Free Range Kids’ guru Lenore Skenazy documented, rooted in paranoia.
But boomers were a product of their times. Not the other way around. Also, I’d add maybe four other ingredients to that recipe for disaster: boomers’ reflections on the risks they recall from their own free-range childhoods; the cultivation of parental status anxiety, especially through social media; the breakdown of family and community; and the growing culture of dependence central planners in big government and education help along with media support.
Shuddering about One’s Own Free-Range Childhood
Some of my free-range memories haunted me when I had kids of my own. Personal examples include: previewing fireworks during the daytime by shutting ourselves in a darkened garage where junk and flammables lay about; the time we kids stood mesmerized around an unattended, half-built Ferris wheel gently spinning in motion and one of us decided to latch onto a piece of it and hang on for a ride; or just climbing alone way high in trees till I swayed with the thinner branches at the top.
I also fried chicken in cast iron skillets filled with boiling hot Crisco by the time I was ten. (My mother, a registered nurse, warned about burn injuries. She taught me well to respect the perils of the stove, despite her frequent usage of the gas burners as cigarette lighters.) It is ironic how helicoptering seems to persist while many hazards—such as unattended, half-built Ferris wheels in motion and blasting caps sprinkled about the landscape (and Crisco)—are virtually unheard of today.
I wanted to protect my own kids from all of the above. So I ended up doing my share of hovering. That’s partly my nature, but, mostly, I think it’s about helicoptering as a contagion.
Helicopter Parenting Is Peer-Modelled Behavior
Helicoptering is not all that natural. More natural is the human instinct to model the behavior of one’s peers, especially when they send messages that provoke a parental form of status anxiety.
Helicoptering is really a culture of debilitating anxiety of being judged an unworthy parent. If a child’s mother doesn’t meet certain standards of supervision, she’s liable in a helicopter environment to be labelled neglectful. The kid may lose playmates.
As a former resident of the Meitivs’ jurisdiction, I observed this sort of thing a lot. Montgomery County, Maryland is a bastion of helicoptering and many varieties of nanny-state hovering. And nothing seems to motivate such parents like self-doubts and the fear of being labelled a “bad” one. Social media and Oprah are always happy to serve up a meme du jour.
The Family and Community Breakdown
Larger social trends have also undermined the teaching of self-reliance. Family breakdown has a domino effect on the ability of a child to be self-reliant. Spit as some may on the idea of the “traditional, nuclear family,” you can’t deny that a mother and father’s teamwork combines a sense of security with a sense of adventure and risk-taking that’s necessary to nurture the spirit of self-reliance in a kid. But with ever-fewer children living in such families, and more living with single parents, we’re now seeing a social asymmetry in many children’s experience that favors far more “Be carefuls!” than it does “You can do it!”
With fewer families like that influencing the culture, we have a breakdown of the types of communities that cultivate self-reliance in children. Instead, the parents turn more to faceless government for direction, not to neighboring families in the community. This whole ethos of community—comprised of individuals nurtured to be self-reliant—is under attack, as well.
Self-Reliance Undermines the State Plantation
Okay, we’re living in a big fat nanny state. That’s a euphemism, though. The reality is that central planners have always viewed a child’s first teachers of self-reliance—mothers and fathers—as enemies of the State. The less people learn about basic life skills (think thrift or basic survival) and how things work, the better it is for the bureaucratic tyranny. We ought to keep this in mind every time someone questions our right to think for ourselves or exercise self-reliance.
There may be two ways to look at this Centralized State. First, think of it as the Ultimate Helicopter Parent, always hovering, providing everything its little babies could want. Merely biological parents are, in the eyes of the nanny state, not much more than meddlesome amateurs. The status and stature of “parents” becomes especially dubious as the bonds between biological parents and their children crumble, a trend due in part to policies of that very nanny state, which is taking over more and more functions of the family.
We might also think of the Centralized State as a great Big Plantation. In this analogy, parents who teach their children self-reliance are akin to those who taught slaves to read. Slave literacy threatened the existence of the plantation system in much the same way that a truly self-reliant populace renders the centralized bureaucratic state unsustainable.
Whether you’re inclined to the happy-face Ultimate Helicopter Parent or the grim Big Plantation view of the centralized state, neither has an interest in cultivating self-reliance in parents or their progeny.
So it’s natural that parents who teach their children “outmoded” forms of self-reliance—such as how to navigate streets unsupervised when they are ready and able to do so—are prime fodder for state punishment and social shaming. We’ve already come a long way in that direction. Unfortunately, it’s a long way back, baby.