Avoiding Risk Can Be Hazardous to Your Kid’s Health

In last week’s blog post, Parenting is Risky Business, I wrote about the dangers of using “risk” as a criterion for determining child neglect: risk is subjective, and parenting involves weighing and taking risks all the time. Of course, parents want to shield their children from harm. But in the past few decades, has this desire morphed into an obsessive drive to shield them from all risk – one which does far more harm than good?

Control
From birth until 18…

Many American parents fear the risk of allowing their children too much freedom, but rarely consider the risk of giving them too little. There is a growing sense of “surplus safety;” that everything potentially dangerous must be avoided. However, it is impossible to truly avoid all danger, and the attempt to do so would lead to a dreary life.

Excessive avoidance of risk may even hinder a child’s development. The girl testing her limits on the monkey bars and the boy begging to explore his neighborhood out of his parent’s sight are not reckless children out for meaningless kicks (or to give their parents heart attacks). They are engaging in ‘risky play,’ activities that carry the possibility of physical injury or getting lost, which Norwegian evolutionary psychologist Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter believes are developmentally necessary to combat debilitating phobias later in life.

The ‘non-associative model of fear acquisition’ suggests that people don’t develop phobias through exposure to or ‘association’ with scary situations or objects, like heights or snakes. Instead, infants are born with instinctive fears of situations that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle, such as the fears of strangers, dangerous animals, and the dark. As they grow, the exhilaration that comes from playful risk-taking allows them to confront and reprogram their reactions to these threats. Such play also allows children to rehearse handling the risks they may face as adults.

Children who are denied such opportunities to challenge themselves may have a higher incidence of mental illness as adults. According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, the sharp decline in opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised play, which often involves risky play, has contributed to an equally dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, feeling of helplessness, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults.

Helping children learn to handle risk doesn’t mean tossing them out into the world to fend for themselves. Kids can develop the necessary skills gradually, by taking on progressively greater physical challenges or expanding the area in which they can roam without adults. Our kids started with unsupervised play in our front yard, and progressed to walks and bike rides around the block, to local stores, and to the library. (And up taller and taller trees).

We Americans once prided ourselves on our courage and willingness to take risks. Most of us descend from people who risked everything to leave their homelands and make a new life in this country. Every day, we decide which risks to take and which to avoid. By trying to avoid unlikely or minor threats, we may expose our children to far greater risks: The risk of growing up anxious, inept, or unable to take care of themselves. The risk of not developing resilience or the ability to judge the appropriateness of different kinds of behavior. What we risk most of all is raising children unprepared to meet the challenges essential to creating rich, rewarding lives; challenges Americans have proudly met for generations.

What do you think? Is it worth it to let kids take risks? 

Where have all the children gone?

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Signs of a different time. 

When I was growing up, and for nearly every generation before mine, kids were expected to entertain themselves in their free time without adult supervision. The idea that two children couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without an adult—either because they were incapable or it was unsafe—would have been laughable. Kids were kicked out of the house and told to “be home by dinner.”

But no longer.

The world is different today—it’s much, much safer than when I was a kid. So why are American parents paranoid about letting their kids out of their sight? German reporter Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Die Welt, wrote in the New York Times about the contrast between parenting in Berlin and suburban Maryland. Back home, it wasn’t unusual for his girls, ages 8 and 11, to take the metro alone, go to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson without parental supervision. But when he suggested that practice to American parents, many were “horrified.” In hundreds of emails, messages, and tweets, people from France, Israel, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere have shared with me stories of the freedom and responsibility given to children in their cultures.

Why not here? The American situation is even more confusing because such freedom was the norm for children and parents in this country not too long ago.

According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, children are less free today than any time in human history, with the exception of periods of slavery or intense child labor. But his research, as well as that of many others in his field, demonstrates that kids need time on their own, away from adults. Time to explore the world at their own pace and make sense of it in their own ways. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents, and society as a whole, reveal a disturbing lack of faith in children’s intelligence and competency. They also deny kids opportunities to experience classic adolescent milestones, such as learning to navigate their neighborhoods, going on sleepovers, getting paid jobs, and attending overnight camps—actives that social work professor and family therapist Dr. Michael Ungar sees as critical rites of passage that have aided the maturation process for generations.

Over the past year, I have heard stories from American adults who grew up “free-range” —what comedian Bill Maher notes was just called “parenting” back then—and have read many nostalgic accounts of childhood adventures. Author Mitch Albom put it best when he said that his parents would have been in jail if today’s over-protective standards had been applied when he was growing up.

Ironically, as children’s freedom outdoors has been severely curtailed, their privilege within the family has grown dramatically. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that, with the exception of ancient royal heirs, American kids may be the most overindulged brats in history. They have little to no responsibility, and are raised with fewer limits than in the past. Chores and part-time jobs are seen as wastes of time. Set bedtimes and mealtimes are quaint relics from the past. Few restrictions are set on TV and videos games, and even parents who can ill-afford to do so spoil their kids with toys, clothing, and other purchases. Behaviors that were considered non-negotiable in the past, like civility and basic respect for adults, are seen as optional or even a hindrance to parents who aim to be their kids’ best friends.

So…in spite of the reduction in crime over the past generation, AND expert agreement on the importance of structure, limits, and accountability for children, it seems that the only real boundary many modern parents enforce is the front door.

Parenting is Risky Business

[Yesterday, I was invited to testify before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on a bill related to Child Protective Services. The sponsor pulled the bill from consideration while I was en route – this post is adapted from the comments I prepared for that hearing].

My name is Danielle Meitiv. I am a Maryland resident and mother of two children: Rafi, 11, and, Dvora 7. From October 2014 to June 2015, my husband and I were subjected to three neglect investigations by Child Protective Services (CPS) of Montgomery County, Maryland. In the first incident, we allowed our children, then ages 10 and 6, to play at a park one block from our house without adult supervision. In the other two instances, we allowed them to play at a park one-mile from our home and walk back, again without an adult. In all three investigations, my husband and I were cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Being wrongly investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is more harmful to families than it may seem to the general public,” says Diane Redleaf of the Family Defense Center.

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The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes parents’ rights – shouldn’t CPS? 

Some people might think that it is better to investigate innocent families than to risk missing actual abuse or neglect. This ignores the harm that wrongful  investigations inflict on children and their families. Our children were pulled from their classrooms, interrogated and frightened by a CPS caseworker, lied to, and held against their will for hours in the back of a police car without access to food or a bathroom. We were not notified that the children had been  into custody until almost three hours after the fact, and they were not returned to us for two more hours. My son later told me that he thought he was going to an orphanage and would never see me again, and both children still want to hide when they see the police.

Children can be deeply traumatized by these forcible, unwarranted separations and their parents are left to pick up the pieces, with little or no help or apology from the authorities. Our family can certainly attest to that – we sought therapy to help our children deal with the post-traumatic stress induced by their ordeal, and it was a full month before we were all able to sleep without nightmares. Because most people assume that CPS only intervenes or removes children in cases where there is a clear threat of serious harm, “there have been few consequences for child welfare authors who indicate parents of neglect or remove a child from the home without evidence,” according to a 2015 report by the Family Defense Center.

Our children are not the only ones who have suffered. According to a report published by the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, from 2008 to 2012, the number of referrals to CPS agencies nationwide increased by 8.3% to 6.3 million children, the while overall rates of actual child victimization declined by 3.3%. That means that over this period, the rate of wrongful investigation increased significantly. These wrongful investigations wasted government resources, which would have been better spent on children and families who actually needed intervention and support.

Nationwide and in the State of Maryland, a root cause of the increase in wrongful investigationsis the vague and inappropriate definition of child neglect. Maryland law 5-701 includes under the definition of neglect “the leaving of a child unattended…under circumstances that indicate… that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” The use of “risk” as a criterion is a serious problem because it is subjective and fails to take into account the risk management decisions that are an essential aspect of parenting. Every parenting action entails a level of risk, whether it is allowing your child to play football, ride in a car, walk home from the park unattended, or sit in front of the television all day.

This criterion also infringes on the rights of parents to make those decisions. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reffirmed that “it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children”. [Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)]

The child welfare policies and practices of most states, including Maryland, directly violate these rights. In June of 2015, the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services announced a “clarification” of their guidelines, stating that an unattended child would not automatically trigger an investigation for neglect. This is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The laws that govern child neglect in Maryland, and every state nationwide, must change to recognize the Constitutional rights of parents to raise their children, without risking government intrusion or harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that fathers – and mothers – know best. State laws must recognize this as well.

Kids Need Their Freedom – Just Like in the Past!

Let Them Go!

[Sung to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go”]

The streets are quiet and empty, not a child to be seen.
They’re all in isolation, just staring at a screen.
Supervised activities, when they’re even allowed outside.
Shouldn’t keep them in, they need the exercise.

Don’t let them climb. Don’t let them run.
Who ever said that childhood was fun?
Protect, direct, why take the chance?

But we need a chance!

Let them go! Let them go! Don’t hold them back anymore.
Let them go! Let them go!
They’re old enough to go to the store.
Let them play. It’s just a few blocks away.
Don’t call the cops.
They won’t bring the kids home anyway.

It’s funny how our parents just let their kids play ball.
And the fears we let control us didn’t bother them at all.
It’s time to see what kids can do. Let them test their limits just like you.
Learn right from wrong; just let them be
Be free!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them play under the big blue sky.
Let them go! Let them go! It’s time to let them try.
Let them run and let them play.
Don’t call the cops…

So many games to play and adventures to be found
Kids organize themselves when you let them run around.
And one thought barrels in, like a child running fast.
Kids need their freedom, just like in the past!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them venture off of the lawn.
Let them go! Let them go! That anxious child is gone.
Take a stand. You can start today.
It’s up to us.
We know what kids need – it’s child’s play.

Vocals by Dvora, Rafi, Danielle, & Alexander Meitiv, and David, Isaac, & Randall Luttenberg

Video by Russell Max Simon

Lyrics by Danielle Meitiv

 

Just the Facts

Fact: According to the FBI, the United States today is as safe, or safer, than it has been in more than forty years.

blog_violent_crime_six_large_cities_2According to the New York Times:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

Fact: Just one generation ago, when todays parents were kids, children were given much greater freedom and responsibility than they are allowed today.

Author Mitch Albom describes a childhood much like that which I, and the majority of today’s parent, enjoyed:

I walked half a mile to school as a 6-year-old, rode a subway and two buses to school when I was 11 and was told by my mother, repeatedly, “Go outside and play somewhere. Anywhere!

Fact: In most places in the world, childhood independence and freedom are still the norm.

As Clemens Wergin, Washington bureau chief for Die Welt, explains:

…Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.

So, why do American parents think that their kids are incapable of handling the same level of independence they enjoyed when they were kids?

Why do they believe that their kids are less competent than their peers in other countries and in earlier times?

And if today’s kids are in fact less competent, whose fault is that?

 

 

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, “free-range” mom, and very passionate, opinionated person. She is currently working on a book called “Fighting For the Future: A Parent’s Rebellion.” You can find her on Twitter:  @DanielleMeitiv , Facebook: Danielle Meitiv, and YouTube: Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv. She lives with her husband and her two famous, free-range kids in Silver Spring, MD.

Welcome!

You’ve reached the online home of Danielle Meitiv, the “Free-Range Mom” from Maryland

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I’m a scientist, writer, and parent of kids who roam. (You might have heard about that last part…) I have a Master’s degree in oceanography and a lifelong love of science and the sea. When I’m not penning or parenting, I work as a science consultant to government agencies and non-profit  organizations.

I’m an opinionated parents who thinks a lot about how to raise kids who thrive – and I’m willing to stand up for my beliefs. Come say Hi on Twitter (@daniellemeitiv) and join the conversation about parenting and freedom on my Community Facebook Page. I’m represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.

Thanks for stopping by!

UPDATE:  As of June 2015, ALL of the CPS charges against us have been dropped. Now we are gearing up to bring the fight to them, to stand up for the freedom of all parents to raise their children independent and responsibly, as they see fit.  If you would like to help, please donate and/or spread the word about this fundraising campaign.

Click here to donate via Paypal.

All donations go through the National Association of Parents and are full tax-deductible.

Thanks for your support!

Danielle

When letting your kids out of your sight becomes a crime – The Washington Post

When letting your kids out of your sight becomes a crime - The Washington Post

    When letting your kids out of your sight becomes a crime – The Washington Post.

February 13, 2015

Danielle Meitiv lives in Silver Spring.

We all want what is best for our children. We want them to be happy and successful, and we want to protect them from harm. But what if we are protecting them from extremely remote threats while ignoring the things that most endanger their well-being? What if police and child welfare officials, the experts whom we empower to protect our children, are pursuing phantom problems while neglecting those who are truly at risk?

One recent Saturday afternoon, six police officers and five patrol cars came to my home in Silver Spring. They demanded identification from my husband and entered our home despite not having a warrant to do so. The reason for this show of force? We had allowed our children to walk home from a neighborhood park by themselves.

A few hours later, a Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker coerced my husband into signing a “temporary safety plan” for our children by threatening to take the children “right now” — a threat she backed up with a call to the police. In the weeks that followed, another worker from the agency appeared at our door with the police and insisted that he did not need a warrant to enter our home. He also interviewed our children at school without our knowledge or permission.

When did Americans decide that allowing our kids to be out of sight was a crime?

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of young children being outside without adult supervision. We’re not always comfortable with it, either. We think, however, that giving them an opportunity to learn to make their way in the world independently is the best way to prepare them for adulthood — and that it is safe for them to do so.

Although our fears may tell us one thing about the world, the facts say something quite different. Crime rates across the United States are as low as they’ve been in my lifetime. Stranger abduction, the bogeyman of most parental fears, has always been exceedingly rare. Far more hazardous are the obesity risks and idleness we subject children to if we do not allow them to run outside and play.

Fear, too, takes a toll. I wasn’t there when the police brought my children home in a patrol car, but my 10-year-old called me, sobbing that “Daddy is getting arrested.” The incident gave my daughter nightmares. My son told us that the social worker who questioned him asked, “What would you do if someone grabbed you?,” and suggested that he tell us that he doesn’t want to go off on his own anymore because it’s dangerous and that there are “bad guys waiting to grab you.” This is how adults teach children to be afraid even when they are not in danger.

We are not the only parents in this position. Last summer, Debra Harrell of North Augusta, S.C., spent 17 days in jail because she let her 9-year-old daughter play at a park while she was working. In Port St. Lucie, Fla.,Nicole Gainey was arrested and charged with neglect because her 7-year-old was playing unsupervised at a nearby playground, and Ashley Richardson of Winter Haven, Fla., was jailed when she left her four kids, ages 6 to 8, to play at a park while she shopped at the local food bank.

The problem with these cases, and ours, was not that police stopped to check on the children involved; that’s what we want officers to do if they have concerns about a child’s welfare. The problem is that, once it was determined that involved parents had already judged their children to be safe, the authorities didn’t move along. Instead they turned to heavyhanded legal and bureaucratic remedies that did far more harm than good.

Nationwide, providers of social services are burdened with overflowing workloads and backlogs of hundreds of cases. So why are they wasting time with us? Even if CPS is mandated to follow up on every call, why aren’t there objective, rational criteria to determine which situations warrant attention? As long as the trigger for an investigation is “child left unsupervised,” these workers will run themselves ragged and waste precious resources investigating families like ours while neglecting children who really need their help.

CPS’s work is vital and necessary, but the pendulum has swung too far. We need to take back the streets and parks for our children. We need to refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear or allow our government to overrule decisions that parents make about what is best for their children. Overpolicing parents in this way does not make children safer; it disrupts families and makes our kids fearful, anxious and unhealthy. We also need to support groups such as the National Association of Parents, which fights for the constitutional rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, as long as the children are not harmed.

 And whether through the legislatures or the courts, neglect laws need to be redefined to safeguard parents’ discretion to make reasonable risk-management judgments for their children, including the decision to allow them the freedom and independence that was the norm a generation ago and is still essential to their development and well-being.

Missing Mom [Reposted from August 2011]

mom with Isaac and Rafi
Thanksgiving 2005. Mom with my son Rafi (standing) and my newphew Isaac. She died four weeks later.

My mother Davida would have been 70 years old today. She died at 64. I can never hear that Beatles tune without thinking of her.

She lived long enough to attend my wedding and celebrate my son Rafi’s first birthday. She will never know the grand-daughter Dvora who is named for her.

My mother was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was 44. I was 13 at the time. Thank God and modern medicine that I had her for another 20 years. Damn them both that it wasn’t longer.

Motherloss

Motherloss is a recurring theme in my family. My mother’s mother died of breast cancer when she was 43. My mother was 17.

I grew up in the shadow of that tragedy. Every day of her life my mother mourned her mother. No, she didn’t walk around in tears all the time – she was vibrant and alive and taught me much about the joy of living.

But she always missed her mother. I had no doubt that that early loss marked my mother forever. I regretted not knowing this woman who was the star of so many family stories. Legends, even.

And now my daughter shares a similar fate – she will only know her mother’s mother through stories. Thank God, I had so much more of my mother than my mother had of hers. I have more to tell. I pray the pictures I paint will be that much richer, her presence that much more vivid for my daughter.

Losing another mother

My mother’s younger sister Linda was only 8 years old when her mother died. When Linda turned 43 she died of a brain tumor. She left behind two children, 8 and 14.

I became very close to that 8-year old. She spent at least one weekend a month sleeping over at my Manhattan apartment.  When my mother died, I mourned with that same girl, now a woman in her late twenties. Among other things she told me about two books that have become priceless guides to the painful journey that I have now begun: Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman. I recommend them both to all women who have lost their mothers, at any age.

And now I’m the Mom

To recap, in case you’ve missed any of the craziness on this page:

My mother’s mother died of breast cancer at 43. She left behind four children: 21 (Judy), 17 (Davida – my mom), 8 (Linda), and 3 (Larry).

Linda died when she was 43. She left behind two children 14 and 8.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer when she was 44. She died 20 years later.

I turned 42 this year. Am I afraid of dying? Does the specter of cancer haunt my thoughts day-to-day? Not consciously. Yes I’ve tried to eat well all my life and I rejected smoking after a very brief experiment in my teens.

But that’s not the most important impact of all this tragedy.  As a direct result of so much sadness and grief, I’ve learned how to live.

Carpe diem. Live each day as though it was your last. You really only get one chance and you never know when your time will be up. Live, love, laugh. Don’t wait for that rainy day – live now.

I don’t know if I ever would have started writing if my mother hadn’t died. Knowing that this was it, that I only had one life in which to be whatever and as much as I could be – maybe that’s what opened the creative wells that had been shut for decades. And now I write almost every day.

With Rafi and Dvora on the Staten Island Ferry, Memorial Day weekend 2011.

It was a dream of my mom’s, too – to be a writer. Now it is my reality, a gift from her to me.

And maybe back to her as well?

My daughter will turn 3 tomorrow. She has my mother eyes.

Happy Birthday, Mom. I miss you very, very much.

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, a writer, a “free-range” mom, and a very passionate, opinionated person. She is currently working on a book called “Fighting For the Future: A Parent’s Rebellion.” You can find her on Twitter:  @DanielleMeitiv , Facebook: Danielle Meitiv, and YouTube: Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv. She lives with her husband and her two famous, free-range kids in Silver Spring, MD.