By Dr. Oscar Bukstein:
Recently a Maryland couple were investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) for letting their children, ages 10 and 6 years old, walk home alone one mile from a local park. After a two month investigation, CPS made a finding of “unsubstantiated” child neglect, meaning that CPS can keep a file on the parents for five years, leaving open the question of what would happen if the children were allowed to walk without adult supervision.
The parents are part of a “free-range children” movement, where children learn self-reliance by being allowed to make choices, build independence and progressively experience the world on their own. As a result of this case, this response to so-called “helicopter” parenting has gained national attention and forces us to pause and think about what level of supervision is best for our children.
Neglect is defined by Texas law as “the leaving of a child in a situation where the child would be exposed to a substantial risk of physical or mental harm, without arranging for necessary care for the child, and the demonstration of an intent not to return by a parent, guardian, or managing or possessory conservator of the child” and includes “(B) the following acts or omissions by a person: (i) placing a child in or failing to remove a child from a situation that a reasonable person would realize requires judgment or actions beyond the child's level of maturity, physical condition, or mental abilities and that results in bodily injury or a substantial risk of immediate harm to the child.” To answer whether similar parental behavior might be considered neglect in Texas, we need to answer two questions: 1) are these kids mature enough to manage the walk from the park and 2) is a walk from the park on a busy suburban street a situation where a child would be exposed to a “substantial risk of harm.” As to the children’s maturity to negotiate this situation, the parents seem to be the best judge of their capacity to make the walk and judging by the parent’s intelligence (they are scientists), it seems reasonable that the children are bright enough to manage most reasonable issues involved in the walk home. Second, does walking home from the park place the children at “substantial” risk of harm? Presumably, the children are not running into traffic, so the major fear or danger appears to be abduction by a stranger. Kidnapping of children by a stranger appears to be quite rare and estimated by no more than several hundred each year. Children have a much higher risk of having a heart attack than being abducted by a stranger. In fact, children are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped or killed by their parents than any stranger on the street. Therefore, this behavior as “substantial risk” seems a bit of a reach.
So, who created this situation, where any conceivable risk is too great to tolerate, even when it potentially compromises the emotional growth of our children? Those of us ‘baby boomers” who used to roam around town alone or with small groups of peers are the guilty ones. While we are charged with keeping our children safe, we cannot protect them from every conceivable risk without the risk for producing fearful children.
Although some investigation appears reasonable, we also need to give parents the benefit of the doubt when they appraise the maturity of their children and their capacity to accomplish specific tasks.
What do you think?