Does this make you nervous?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Seven Reasons We Hate Free-Range Parenting

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Maryland want to raise their children as "free-range kids," which is to say giving them the kind of range of movement that those of us over 30 recall as a normal part of childhood. One of my cherished childhood memories is the long walks my best friend and I would take home from church through New York's Riverside Park, which Google Maps records as a distance of a mile and a half, stopping at every playground along the way. This is slightly longer than the walk home from the playground that caused Montgomery County's Child Protective Services to investigate the Meitivs last year, after someone called the police to report the alarming sight of ... children walking down the street alone. On Sunday, after another "good Samaritan" called the cops, CPS seized the children, leaving the parents frantic with worry for hours.

One could argue that this is a good lesson for the parents. One could also argue that it would be bracing to have the police periodically break into our homes to educate us about weak points in our security systems. In fact, the sort of abduction that CPS apparently wants the Meitivs to obsess over is incredibly rare and always has been.

Why has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children? Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don't hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What's truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids. The police are making arrests that would have branded their own parents as criminals. To hear people my age talk about the dangers of unsupervised children, you would think that the attrition rate in our generation had been at least 30 percent.

Even people who haven't gone crazy are afraid of the Pediatric Patrol. A mom of my acquaintance whose house backs up to a school playground, with a gate that lets her children walk straight into the schoolyard, is afraid to let them go through the gate without an adult, for fear that someone would call the same nutty CPS that has taken to impounding the Meitiv children. She compromises by letting them play alone in the playground only when she is in the backyard, so that she can intervene if the police arrive.

Think about that: Kids have the priceless boon of a playground right in their backyard, but they can't use it unless Mom drops everything to accompany them. I am running out of synonyms for "insane" to describe the state we have worked ourselves into. What on earth has happened to us?

As it happened, I looked into that for my book, and the disappointing news is that I didn't find much good research to explain this mass shift in American parenting. I did, however, develop some theories from watching parents, law enforcement officials and others discuss the pros and cons of free-range parenting.

I should add a caveat: I don't have kids, so I lack an important perspective. And I should say that if I did have kids, I'm sure I too would be a safety paranoiac, making my own baby food from organic ingredients just in case pesticides in their unsweetened applesauce turn out to cause cancer. So I'm not blaming individual parents; this is a collective insanity, not a personal foible.

So how can we explain it?

1. Cable news. When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you'll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. The New York City where I walked to school, past housing projects with major crime problems and across busy streets, was much more dangerous than the New York of today. And that is true of virtually everywhere. The world is not more dangerous. But it feels more dangerous to a lot of people because the media landscape has shifted.

Think of it this way: There were always stranger abductions, but they were always extremely rare, perhaps 2 or 3 per 1 million children under 12 in the U.S. each year. However, in the 1970s, you most likely only heard about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. This made it sound like what it is: an unimaginably terrible thing that thankfully almost never happens. Very occasionally, a case would catch the imagination and make national news, like the Lindbergh baby. But these almost always happened in big cities like New York, or to rich people, so people didn't imagine that this was a risk that faced them.

Then along came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content. These sorts of cases started to make national news, and because our brains are terrible at statistics, we did not register this as "Aha, the overall rate is still low, but I am now hearing cases drawn from a much larger population, so I hear about more of them." Instead, it felt like stranger abductions must have gone up a lot.

The Internet also enables parents to share stories of every bad thing that happens to their children. We used to be limited to collecting these stories from people we actually met, which meant that we didn't hear a lot of truly terrible stories. Now we have thousands at the tips of our fingers, and the same failures of statistical intuition make it feel like wow, terrible things are happening all the time these days.

2. Economic insecurity. As college degrees, and particularly elite degrees, have become more valuable, parents have come to feel that they must micromanage their children's lives in order to make a good showing on college applications. The result is vastly more supervised activities. This has shrunk the pool of kids who are around to play with, making free-range childhood less rewarding.

3. Mothers working. In suburbs and small towns, stay-at-home moms formed "eyes on the street," so that even if your kid was roaming the neighborhood, there was a gentle adult eye periodically sweeping across their activity. But I don't think we can lean on this too much, because kids in cities also had a lot more independence back then, and the Broadway of my youth was not exactly a sweet, sheltered world where nothing much could go wrong.

There's another reason I think this matters, however. More mothers are paying others to take care of their children. It's easy to impose severe limits on the mobility of your children when you are not personally expected to provide 24-hour supervision. When I was a kid, there were a lot of mothers at home who believed that being home with kids was important but did not actually personally enjoy playing with 4-year-olds. Those parents would have rebelled at being told that they should never let their kids out of hearing range. Those mothers are now at work, paying someone else to enjoy playing with their 4-year-old or at least convincingly fake it.

4. Collective-action problems. When it comes to safety, overprotective parents are in effect taking out a sort of regret insurance. Every community has what you might call "generally accepted child-rearing practices," the parenting equivalent of "generally accepted accounting principles." These principles define what is good parenting and provide a sort of mental safe harbor in the event of an accident. If you do those things and your kid gets hurt -- well, you'll still wish that you'd asked them to stay home and help bake cookies, or lingered a little longer at the drugstore, or something so that they weren't around when the Bad Thing happened. But if you break them and your kid gets hurt, you -- and a lot of other people -- will feel that it happened because you were a bad parent. So you follow the GACP.

Over time, these rules get set by the most risk-averse parent in your social group, because if anything happens, you'll wish you had acted like them. This does not mean that the kids are actually safer: Parents in most places "shelter" their kids from risk by strapping them into cars and driving them to supervised activities, which is more dangerous than almost anything those kids could have gotten up to at home.

5. Lawsuits. In the U.S., the liability revolution of the 1970s has made every institution, from parks departments to schools, much more sensitive about even tiny risks, because when you go before the jury in a case about a hurt child, arguing that what happened was less likely than getting hit by a bolt of lightning is going to have much less impact than the evidence of a hurt child.

6. Mobile phones. All these strangers calling 911 to report a 6-year-old who has been left in a car outside a store for a few minutes are probably doing so because it's easy. If that person had to dig for a piece of paper and a pen to write the license plate down, then take time out of their day to find a pay phone, dial the police and stand around talking to the 911 operator, most would probably think "You know, I bet his mom is going to come out of the store in a minute, and I really need to get home to start dinner." Now you can just take a picture of the license plate and call from the comfort of your car. It would be surprising if we lowered the price of being an officious busybody and didn't get a lot more of it.

7. We're richer. Richer countries can afford more safety. That's a good thing, but there can be too much safety. There are major downsides to this form of parenting, as many authors have laid out: It's hard on the parents, may result in the kids developing more phobias, and stunts the creativity and self-reliance that we theoretically want to develop in children so that they can become happy and productive adults.

I don't think there's one easy answer to why we've become insane; rather, there are a lot of forces that are pushing in this direction. But that doesn't mean we can't push back. And a good start would be for the public to make clear to agencies such as Montgomery County's CPS -- and the elected officials who created them -- that giving kids some room to roam is not child abuse, and that when taxpayer money is wasted punishing families like the Meitivs, it is the government that is the abuser.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net