For kids, failure is a critical ingredient in success

TheGiftOfFailureFailure is a critical ingredient in success, especially for kids. If that statement seems counter-intuitive or even contradictory, it’s time for you to check out Jessica Lahey’s wonderful book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

The Gift of Failure focuses on the benefits of letting kids make mistakes. Lahey starts with a brief overview of “how failure became a dirty word” in parenting, and why making your kids dependent on you is a really bad idea. Then she dives in to the nitty-gritty, how-to of raising successful kids. Each chapter emphasizes how failure promotes success in every area of a kid’s life, from household duties (she recommends ditching the word “chores”) to sports, homework, and friendships.

Parenting for Autonomy and Competence

Like the experienced school teacher she is, Lahey breaks her lessons down into easy-to-understand ideas, and includes concrete examples, and detailed advice for parents of kids from pre-school through high school. (If only she had been one of my teachers in middle school!) For me, the most eye-opening chapter–the one I kept reading aloud to my husband until he escaped to another room to finish reading his own book–was Chapter 3, “Less Really Is More: Parenting for Autonomy and Competence.”

Lahey assumes that if you’re an American parent in the 21st century, you probably need a bit of help stepping back and giving your kids more autonomy. (If so, you’re in good company). She starts by laying out some of the behaviors that define controlling versus autonomy-supporting parents. You may be surprised to find where some of your standard procedures fall. (Even this “free-range” mom recognized herself in some of the controlling practices). Thankfully, Lahey spends the rest of the chapter giving general suggestions for shifting to autonomy-supporting behaviors. The second half of the book dives deeper into specific areas, with advice on how to support kids’ autonomy and learning in school, friendships, etc.

Whose Life is it Anyway?

While the book talks about all the good reasons that parents should let their kids fail, there’s another lesson lurking within Lahey’s book: for kids to succeed, parents must stop linking their child’s success in school, sports, etc. to their own (the adult’s) need to feel like successful parents. Lahey is sympathetic to parents who are guilty of this, and confesses that she had to come to grips with this tendency herself:

I had to stop equating the act of doing things for my children…with good parenting. It still feels good to do things for them, and I still do–all the time. But the things I do for them are different now, and my motivations are based on an evaluation of their needs, not mine. Before I was doing things they could do for themselves to feel good about my parenting.

Boom. Before hovering over the homework or insisting on another hour of clarinet practice, parents need to stop and ask themselves who really benefits when they do all the work. Are you hovering because that’s what’s best for your darling, or because it makes you feel like a winner as a parent?

It’s an important distinction–as Lahey makes clear in her book, the kids whose lives are micromanaged lose out in the end. Their intrinsic motivation dies, as does the pleasure that comes from owning their achievements. And of course when everything is done for a child, he never develops competency in basic life skills. Whether it’s sorting the laundry, resolving conflicts with “mean” kids, or writing a college essay, at some point your kids are going to have to do for themselves. When, if not during childhood, the time when they’re supposed to be learning life’s most important lessons?

What do you think: should kids be “allowed” to fail? What about when grades, championships, and college acceptances are on the line? Were you allowed to fail as a kids? If so, or not, how has your parents’ attitude affected your success and confidence as an adult? Let us know, in the comments below!  


Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam. She loves to talk about kids, parenting, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and experienced public speaker, and is represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.

Kids need outdoor play

Dvora & Rafi Meitiv up a tree
A kid’s natural habitat

My previous blog post talked about the many reasons that free play is critical for healthy child development. But time free play is disappearing for most kids, especially free play outdoors.

A 2012 study of over 4 million children found that on most days, more than 40% of preschoolers didn’t even have one opportunity to play outdoors. Not a single chance to touch the grass, breathe fresh air, or bask in the sun. That’s a dramatic change from just one generation ago: in a national survey, 830 mothers were asked to compare their own childhood play with their children’s—eighty-five percent agreed that their children played outdoors less than they had at the same age. 70% of mothers said they had played outdoors daily, and 56% said they did so for 3 hours or more. Regarding their kids’ play, the percentages were 31% daily, and 22% for three hours or more.

Kids today are under house arrest

Many parents claim that “screens” lure children indoors and away from outdoor physical activities. It is true that kids are spending a lot of their time using technology: a 2012 UCLA study found that 90% of children’s leisure time is spent indoors with television, video games, and computers. However, studies in the UK found that 40% of kids would rather play outside, but their parents wouldn’t let them, citing concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ In the survey of 830 American mothers, most admitted that they restricted their children’s outdoor play, with 82% citing “safety” including fear of crime as the primary reason, in spite of the fact that all categories of violent crime are at their lowest point in forty years.

When kids are allowed outside, it’s usually to participate in a scheduled or organized activity. A survey by the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control for that in a typical week 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% played on their own. Many parents believe that participation in team sports is beneficial for kids and there is evidence to support that view. But this participation should not come at the expense of free play and when the benefits are compared, free play comes out ahead. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that hours spent participating in organized sports were negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings were positively correlated with adult creativity.

Some parents justify channeling their children into sports rather than free play on the grounds that the children might get hurt if allowed to play without structure or guidance. The opposite is true. A study of more than 1,200 children, from 8 to 18 years old, who visited 2 Chicago hospitals, found that children were more likely to be injured if they spent twice as much time per week in organized sports as they did in free play. Why? “Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts,” says the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Kids need outdoor play

According to the AAP, playing outdoors, in nature, “allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances,” that kids need. “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity.” Angela Hascom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, says that as the amount of time kids spend outdoors decreases, sensory deficits are increasing and she’s seeing more kids with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. “A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, speculates that the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among school children may stem in part from ‘nature deficit disorder’–the growing alienation of humans, especially children, from the natural world. While Louv stressed that the term as not meant to be scientific or diagnostic, evidence shows that time spent in nature can increase creativity, speed healing, and reduce anxiety and depression – in kids as well as adults.


What can parents do?

Let kids go outside! Let them explore the yard or a local park. Crime is lower today than it has been in forty years so there’s no reason to keep the kids in. Some of them may resist—if they’re used to being entertained, it may take them a little while to get into the groove of playing by themselves. But I guarantee, given the chance, most kids will take to free outdoor play like, well, kids – because it’s what they’re built to do.

What are your memories of playing outside as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.



Playtime’s Over!

Just let the poor kid play!

Playtime’s over, kids! Bossy adults have all but killed it, replacing traditional free play with organized sports, extracurricular activities, and myriad ‘teachable moments’ designed to build a better child.

Over the past fifty years, the time kids spend in free play has declined dramatically, with the greatest losses occurring in the past few decades. From 1981 to 1997, playtime decreased more than 7 hours a week. Kids lost another 2 hours between 1997 to 2003. Overall, these losses added up to more than 12 hours a week over the past 25 years. Much of that time was stolen by what adults see as more ‘productive’ pursuits, such as schoolwork and team sports. But a growing body of research–piles and piles of it!– shows that kids learn best when left to what they do best: play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): “play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Play is so important to optimal child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child. Classical educator Christopher Perrin notes that the ancient Greeks saw play as so fundamental to children that the word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates recognizes the wisdom of letting children learn through play: “Don’t use force in training children in the studies but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each child is natural directed towards.”

What is play?

Not all children’s activities qualify as play. Most serious scholars of play (and there are many, odd as that may seem) don’t even group organized activities like sports in the same category. Anthropologist David Lancy, author of the highly-acclaimed (and very readable) text, The Anthropology of Childhood, views the idea that “adults might intervene to structure or control children’s play” as a “contradiction in terms” because for those who study play in culture around the world, the very definition includes attributes like “voluntary”, “purposeless”, “child-centered” “autonomous” and “autotelic” (= an end in itself). That is, “play” structured by adults isn’t play at all and fails to provide the myriad essential benefits that children and other mammals can only get from free play. According to Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, “free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play.”

The benefits of free play

Decades of research compiled by the AAP strongly suggests that undirected, unstructured play, or free play “allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.” When play is child-driven, children have the opportunity to “practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” By contrast, “when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” A robust study led by Dr. Jane E. Barker of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder found that “[t]he more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.” (Executive functioning encompasses those skills that help people gets things done, such as plan, focus, manage time, and control behavior).

Dr. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, thinks “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” His research has shown that play leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most highly developed in humans and is responsible for executive functioning. But only free play produced this kind of brain development—play without adult intervention, coaches or rulebooks. It appears that the negotiation and problem-solving involved in even the simplest children’s games build the circuits in the brain that are essential for navigating the many complex social interactions and challenges that are part of human life.

If play is so critical to developing bodies and minds, why do kids get so little of it these days? What attitudes and activities have contributed to the loss of free play and what can we do to reverse those trends? I’ll examine these questions and more later in the week. In the meantime, check out the fun video I made with the kids about child’s play, a spoof on that Disney song, called ‘Let Them Go!’

What are your memories of playing as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.



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?

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?

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.

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.

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.