Someone to watch over me? Please?

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The Village Turns Against Free-Range Parents

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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Last week I wrote about free-range parenting and the madness of declaring the streets off-limits to unaccompanied children until they’re old enough to run for Congress. This morning, I wrote about the pernicious effects of child support, and how the government, in attempting to fill the roles that were once taken care of by communities, can end up making matters worse, often with the tragic result that poor people who can’t make their payments are punished so severely that their earning power is further eroded.

I thought of both of these stories this morning as I read the results of Jessica Roake’s interviews with the non-free-range parents who live in the same area as the Meitivs, the family that has had multiple run-ins with Child Protective Services in Maryland's Montgomery County.

What you hear most from these parents is exasperation that they should have to step in -- to tell the older kid not to hit the younger one, to make sure they don’t get hit by a truck. And this is an important point: Free-range kids impose some burden on the community of adults, who then have to look out for stray kids in a way that they probably wouldn’t have to if their parents were there.

You do see this point made in some form in many articles on free-range parents. I made it myself: “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 these parents see things very differently; they don’t want to be “eyes on the street,” and they resent the Meitivs for forcing them into that role.

The idea of parenting that these people embrace is the natural result of a broad liberal conception of how society should work. On the one hand, you have a narrow private sphere, which is mostly confined to the home and children and perhaps churches. The rest is public space, and as Yuval Levin pointed out in an essay on the Hobby Lobby case, the vanguard of this movement is increasingly trying to “establish a public monopoly on the aims of social action.”

“American progressivism,” he writes, “has always wanted to clear out the space between the individual and the state and to confer rights only on individuals, rather than encouraging people to form complex layers of interacting institutions with diverse views of the good that each pursues with vigor and conviction.”

When it comes to churches (and corporations closely held by religious believers), the right has pushed back against this vision. But in the case of family, this vision has already won out over an earlier conception of community in which watching out for nearby children was the duty of all adults, not an obligation neatly divided between private individuals and the state. Conservatives may theoretically believe in intermediating public institutions as an alternative to the state, but in my experience, they are as likely as liberals to practice this sort of atomized parenting.

I'm not arguing for an anarcho-capitalist world in which kids unlucky enough to be born to parents who can’t or won’t take care of them properly are left to the vagaries of private charity and community intervention. But any principle can be taken too far, and there are several costs to a world in which adults tend to their own kids and resent taking even the slightest responsibility for anyone else’s, outside their immediate circle of friends or dire emergencies.

It turns the choice of how much freedom to give your children into a collective-action problem: We must all choose one or the other. If we all choose atomistic parenting, then parents will be forced to invest much more time and effort in supervising their own children, and they will not want the added burden of occasionally offering a friendly “stop that” to someone else’s. Because there are large benefits to giving kids unstructured and minimally supervised time, this is a substantial drawback.

This sort of parenting also drives inequality, in the ways that have been chronicled by Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. The direct effect is obvious: Upper-middle-class parents have more resources to provide highly enriched supervision of their children, so poor kids whose parents aren’t able to do the same fall behind their wealthier peers. But there are also indirect effects. Constant supervision gives parents a lot more ability to control their children’s environments, and a look at the suburban house hunt (or the lottery for urban public schools) demonstrates that one of the most important ways they do that is by trying to keep their kids away from children of lower socioeconomic status.

The past wasn't some sort of idyll in which kids of all economic levels and races and ethnic groups mingled freely outside the watchful eyes of their parents; that is obviously false. I’m only saying that the more parents structure their children’s time, the more total will be the separation of privileged kids from those who don’t have the same advantages. And the separation of the poor from the affluent-but-not-rich seems to be a serious barrier to the kinds of economic mobility we all say we want.

This also absolves those parents of any personal stake in the lives of those kids. It's not that upper-middle-class parents don’t care -- many parents are willing to spend lots more tax money on early childhood education. But there’s not much evidence that those tax dollars, even if they are spent, will close the gap between the increasing amounts of time and resources that upper-middle-class parents invest in their children and the kinds of childhoods people experience at the other end of the spectrum. (For a parent who is determined to ensure that their children have a permanently secure future in the elite, that may be a feature rather than a bug.) 

I believe most parents are caught between a genuine desire for poorer kids to have more opportunity and their personal duty to ensure that their own children get the best possible start in life -- and, unsurprisingly, most people focus more strongly on their personal duty than the general principle. Still, the net effect is a system in which affluent parents nominally support equality of opportunity while practically doing much to make it less likely. And because they are rarely personally acquainted with many children outside of their socioeconomic group, their views on what would benefit those kids are bound to be impoverished.

And then there's the problem I mentioned in this morning’s column: The government is simply not as good at performing certain functions as communities used to be. There are things the government does better, to be sure -- I don’t think that ensuring kids have enough to eat and adequate schooling is a task that can simply be left to the hope that private charity will step in. But just as a garnishment order is a poor substitute for marriage, deputizing CPS to keep children away from their frantic parents is a bad alternative to “That’s dangerous!” or “Why don’t we call your mother?”

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Megan McArdle at

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