Free-Range Parenting Debate: Should Kids Be Allowed to Roam Unsupervised?

Rafi and Dvora Meitiv were walking home from a park recently in Silver Spring, Maryland, when they were picked up by police for being unsupervised.PlayABC News
WATCH Free Range Parents Believe in Letting Kids Roam Alone

Rafi and Dvora Meitiv were walking home from the park recently in Silver Spring, Maryland, when they were suddenly confronted by strangers.

Not a gang member, or a bully, or a child molester, but the police.

“We were over here about to cross the street the two police cars pull up here, stopped, the doors opened then the whole thing started,” Rafi said.

The Montgomery County Police gave the kids a stern warning about walking alone, put them in the squad car and drove them home.

“I look out and see the police and thought, ‘Oh my God, what did they do?’” said their father Alexander Meitiv. “I asked did they do something, they said ‘no,’ I said, ‘OK, I'll take my children,’ then I realized they wouldn't let me take them.”

Maryland Child Protective Services then accused the Meitivs of neglect, saying unless they committed to a safety plan, the kids would have to go into foster homes. In Silver Spring, leaving anyone under age 18 unsupervised constitutes neglect.

Before the police found them, Rafi and Dvora, ages 10 and 6, said they used to run around outside and cross the street by themselves all the time. Their parents, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, said they trust their children and want to give them the freedom to make mistakes, away from the parental safety net.

It’s an approach known these days as “free range parenting,” which to the Meitivs is an age-old tradition.

“I'm just parenting the way I was parented and the way that almost every adult I know was parented,” Danielle said.

Suddenly this middle-class suburban family found themselves smack in the middle of a national parenting debate.

In an era of helicopter parenting, many people wouldn’t dream of letting their kids leave their sight unattended.

Plenty of parents are rightly concerned about all the menaces of modern life -- kidnappers, perverts, violent crime, a broken bone, a drunk driver, having their kids snatched or lost, or fall victim to countless other horrors.

But there is also a growing movement of parents who refuse to hover.

Lenore Skenazy is a champion of free range parenting, and stars on a reality TV show on Discovery Life.

“The concept is that I ... go to families that are extremely over-protective and nervous and I find out all the things the kids aren't allowed to do,” Skenazy said. “I make helicopter parents see what their kids can really do, stuff that they didn't believe because they never let them do it.”

The title of her new show: “World’s Worst Mom.” It’s an insult she has been called many times. "Nightline" first profiled Skenazy in 2009 when she let her then-9-year-old son Izzy take the New York City subway by himself.

“We thought, ‘Gee, you know, he knows the subway, he knows how to use the card that gets you on,’” she said. “We sat him down, we made sure he knew how to read a map, but he's been reading maps forever, and then we thought about the city. Is the city safe? Well our crime rate is back to 1963 and we’re talking about Sunday which is a nice, easygoing day.”

Izzy is now in high school. After that first trip, he was inspired to start pushing the boundaries further, gaining confidence and street smarts with every trip outside the nest. He is now an impressively confident, self sufficient kid.

“Just because I know my way around doesn't mean I never get lost. That's part of the fun, find my way home from somewhere that my mom drops me off, it's really helpful,” he said, adding that he’s gotten stopped by the police three times for riding the subway by himself.

But in Maryland, the Meitivs are still under investigation. The Maryland Child Protective Services declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality laws. But even some supporters of free range parenting say there should be limits.

“A 10-year-old should never be in charge of a 6-year-old,” said Susan Klein-Shilling, a child and family therapist. “It’s not about the 6-year-old being abducted or something terrible on the outside happening, but even potentially the 6-year-old spraining their ankle or having an asthma attack, or any kind of thing that could happen to a child of that age.”

But the Meitivs say they are the best ones to judge if their kids are ready, and if their neighborhood is safe enough, for them to be on their own, not the government.

“Frankly I think that raising independent children and responsible children and giving them the freedom that i enjoyed is a risk worth taking,” Danielle Meitiv said. “In the end it's our decision as parents.”

“It's essential for our development,” Rafi added. “I love it and it's just a part of our life.”