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

Maryland parents were investigated after allowing their kids to walk home alone.

ByABC News
January 30, 2015, 12:11 AM

— -- 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.