Whether or not you recognize the name, you’ve probably heard of Danielle Meitiv. She’s been in the news a lot, ever since she and her husband Alexander were accused of child neglect and were threatened with having their children—10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora—taken away because they allowed those children to play in the park and walk home unsupervised. I feel honored that this civil rights leader (yes, I thought carefully about that phrase, and I mean it), who is in the forefront of the battle to restore some of the rights that essentially all children in my generations enjoyed, agreed to this interview.
Here is the interview:
Peter: I, along with much of the rest of the country, have read about Montgomery County (Maryland) Child Protective Services’ investigation of your family for neglect, including forcing your husband to sign a ‘temporary safety plan’ promising that you would supervise your children at all times, with the threat that otherwise they would take your children away. Please tell me about the incidents that led to that threat, and how your family has dealt with it so far, both legally and in terms of your everyday living.
Danielle: We have had two run-ins with Montgomery County CPS. In early November 2014, two CPS social workers showed up at my door. They told us that a neighbor had called their hotline to report that two children were seen at the local park unattended. They told us that, by law, children under eight had to be attended by adults at all times. We disagreed with both the letter and spirit of their claim, since the actual law says that kids under eight may not be locked or confined in an apartment, building, etc. without someone 13 or older present.
On a Saturday afternoon in December, 2014, while I was out of town, my husband dropped our kids off at a park about a mile from our house. The kids played at the park for a while, then started for home. They only made it halfway. Three police officers intercepted them and asked them where their parents were. Were they lost? My son insisted they were fine and had permission to be walking alone, but the police told the kids to get in the car and brought them home.
After a tense exchange with my husband, during which my son called me to say, “the police are here and I think Daddy is going to get arrested,” the police left. A few hours later, a Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) social worker showed up with a “temporary safety plan,” which stated that the children would be supervised at all times until CPS could follow up with us the following week. My husband refused to sign, saying that he wanted to show it to me, or a lawyer. The CPS worker said that if he didn’t sign the document, she would take the children “right now” — a threat she backed up with a call to the police. He signed. In the weeks that followed, another worker from the agency appeared at our door with the police and insisted that he did not need a warrant to enter our home. He also took our children out of class and interviewed them without our knowledge or permission.
After a two-month investigation, CPS found us “responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect,” an Orwellian judgment that our lawyer calls “legal purgatory” because it seems to be meaningless in plain English, yet is like a cloud hanging over our heads. Since we have not done anything wrong, we have no intention of changing our parenting practices, yet we fear what will happen if someone contacts CPS a third time. We intend to appeal the ruling and hope that will resolve the issue.
Peter: I’m sure readers would like to know a bit about your family and the neighborhood you live in, as context for understanding this case. What careers are you and your husband in? What is your neighborhood like? Are there other children living in the neighborhood, and, if so, do you ever see them outside? How old were your children when you first began to notice that maybe you were allowing them more freedom than other children their age were getting? Can you say something about your children’s history of responsibility and adventures that preceded the incidents that have recently put you in the news?
Danielle: My husband is a theoretical physicist and modeler who studies evolution at the molecular level at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). My background is in oceanography and I work as a freelance climate science consultant and science writer. We live in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb right outside of Washington, DC. Our neighborhood is pleasant, diverse, and very safe. We know many of our neighbors, some of whom have children, but we rarely see the kids playing outside.
When my son was around 5 years old, we started to allow him to play outside in front of the house by himself. He was around 6 years old when we first let him walk around the block. I remember waiting eagerly for him to come back; curious to learn about the kids he would meet. But we were to be disappointed – he didn’t meet any kids on that walk, nor any of the ones that followed. There were no other kids his age outside. It was then that we really understood just how different our approach was from the new parenting norm. When my daughter was old enough we let her join my son outside, so they at least have each other as companions.
We started out allowing our kids to play in the yard unsupervised, then extended that to the street in front of the house. Their range extended to include walks around the block and to the park a block away. When they were ready and expressed interest, we allowed them to explore the residential area around our home, to take short walks to nearby shops, and to go to the library and adjacent park about one mile away. They also walk to and from the bus stop on school days, approximately three blocks from our house.
Peter: You seem to be in the demographic of parents who, as a rule today, are most protective and directive of their children, most concerned about getting them into the “best” schools and preparing them by putting them into all sorts of adult-led extracurricular activities. Yet you are not taking that path. Why not?
Danielle: The real question is, why are so many parents of my generation and demographic convinced that hyper-parenting is the right way to raise kids? From everything I have seen “protective and directive” parenting results in kids who are anxious, competent in only a very narrow range of (mostly academic) skills, and lack the confidence, creativity, and resilience that adults need to thrive and be happy.
Children need time to explore their interests and the world around them. When we take up all of their time with adult-directed activities, we rob them of the opportunity to interact with their peers, follow their own interests, and make and learn from their own mistakes. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents unwittingly exhibit a shocking lack of faith in their children’s intelligence and competency. I respect my kids too much to do that to them.
It seems to me that a lot of modern parenting is driven by parental anxiety and ego. But I don’t see raising children as a race or competition won by those who get their kids into an Ivy League school, and I find it ridiculous to define a child’s success solely by the university they attend, the career they choose or their future income or social class. Too many parents in my demographic cohort are too involved in their kids’ lives and rely on their children’s achievements for a sense of personal satisfaction and validation. That kind of pressure is terrible for kids and unhealthy for parents too.
Peter: I understand that you were born in 1969 and grew up in Queens, New York City. As it happens, my son was born in 1969, so I know something about what childhood was like in the 1970s and early ‘80s when you were growing up. Overall, children were far freer then than they are now, though not quite as free as I was when I was a child in the 1950s. Can you tell me a bit about your own childhood? Do your memories of childhood play a role in your own parenting practices? Is your neighborhood today, in Silver Spring, Maryland, safer or more dangerous than the neighborhood you grew up in?
Danielle: When I was growing up, no parents watched their kids 24/7 – the idea would have been laughable. Instead, packs of us gathered to explore the neighborhood, organize games, and go on all kinds of kid adventures. When I was very young, we lived in an apartment building in the Flushing area of Queens, and I have many memories of running between the apartment buildings, exploring the main shopping street, and climbing on top of the garages near the building, both with my older brother and on my own. I would often go to the next apartment building to see if my friend Lori was home, and if, not I would go outside to entertain myself.
When I was 5 years old, we moved to a more residential neighborhood next to a large hospital. My friends and I loved exploring the hospital and the ever-present construction sites on the hospital grounds. We also roamed for miles on our bikes. Of course we had no cellphones, and the only guidance we were given by our parents was to come home in time for dinner or, if we went out later, then by the time the streetlights came on.
These memories play a significant role in how I am raising my kids. I know how important and precious that freedom was to me – why would I deny it to my own children? The crime rate in New York City in the 1970’s was definitely higher than today, yet no one kept their kids inside, under constant supervision. I have no intention of doing so today.
Peter: In the news clips I’ve seen, your children come across as remarkably happy and self-assured. I’m wondering what you can tell me about their ability to take responsibility. There’s a good deal of evidence that our expectations of children can become self-fulfilling prophecies. When we assume that children are irresponsible, they may behave irresponsibly (partly because they have so little opportunity to practice responsibility), which reinforces our initial assumption. It’s a vicious cycle. My own experience has been that children almost desperately want to take responsibility, for as much of their own lives as they can handle, and when allowed and trusted to do so they rise to the occasion and feel proud and happy. I wonder what your experience has been along these lines.
Danielle: It makes me so sad to see how adults underestimate and undermine children’s abilities to handle responsibility. By constantly doubting and hovering over them, parents send the message that kids are incompetent and untrustworthy. Children usually rise or fall to our expectations, so if they are truly incompetent, whose fault is that? Yet, given the opportunity, kids often prove to be much more capable than we expect. My own kids have done so numerous times.
For example, before we would let our kids explore our neighborhood, we had to make sure that they could cross streets safely, including the multi-lane avenues by our home. Recently, I learned that my kids had come up with their own rule for making those crossings: when they come to one of the big streets, they wait for an adult to cross and walk beside that person, because they figure that the drivers are more likely to notice a taller person. I never told them to do that - they came up with that practice on their own, as a way to make themselves feel safer.
Another example: As in many families, school mornings at one time were scenes of chaos and tension as my husband and I herded the kids from bedroom to breakfast table and out the front door in time to catch the school bus, nagging all the way—do you have your lunch? Did you remember to pack your homework? Are you dressed warmly enough? And, for the fifth time, will you put on your shoes?!? My father or I would usually walk the kids the three blocks to the school bus stop, to make sure that they got there in time. But one morning, in January, neither of us was ready to go, so I told the kids to go by themselves, warning that if they missed the bus I was not going to drive them. The school is just over a mile away, so they could walk if necessary. They made it on time.
The next morning I got ready to walk with them, but my six-year-old insisted that they could go alone, and she and her brother helped each other get out on time. They’ve done that ever since. They watch the clock, give each other “ten-minute warnings,” and walk the three blocks by themselves. It’s been three months since I’ve had to harangue them to get ready and get going. Now that the kids have taken upon themselves the responsibility of getting to the bus, they no longer dawdle, resist, or argue. In the past month they’ve also started to assemble their own lunches (from a choice of ingredients we set out) and they do that too without being nagged. Mornings are so much more pleasant for everyone!
Peter: I’ve heard from some parents that their trusting parenting style often puts them or their children in conflict with personnel at the school that the children attend. Has that been a problem for you or your children?
Danielle: On Tuesdays, my son has a 4:15 after-school class. There are lots of activities going on at that time and at least 50-75 people in the building. He usually stays in the classroom where the class will be held, doing his homework until it begins. Last week, one of the teachers saw him walking to the classroom and the secretary called me to tell me that Rafi was "roaming the halls." When I explained why he was there, she said that he could not be in the school unsupervised. Could he sit in the library and do his homework until class started? No. Could he sit in the hallway outside the office until class started? No.
When I asked why, I was told - without a hint of irony - that he could not be unsupervised in the school because “anything could happen.” When I pressed her, she said, “He could fall on the stairs and no one would know he was there." And, "I'm not saying this is likely, but what if a stranger came into the school? He could be accosted." [PG’s note: As often happens, the secretary may have confused the word accosted with abducted. I assume her warning was not simply that a stranger might approach the boy, but that a stranger might kidnap him.]
Yes, the secretary of my children's elementary school actually told me that, in broad daylight, with dozens of people in the building, there was a real possibility that my child could be accosted [PG: abducted?] by a stranger inside the school. I almost asked if that meant it was unsafe for him to walk to the bathroom or the office unsupervised during the day because anything could happen, but she'd already proven her inability to appreciate irony and I didn't want to give her any ideas.
Two weeks later, I went to meet the kids at school en route to our usual Thursday afternoon park date. I got there 15 minutes after dismissal and found the kids' bikes and school bags waiting outside, but no kids. I figured they went to play down the hill or to the nearby store but didn't find them. Only then did it occur to me to look for them inside. Sure enough, one of their teachers had insisted that they couldn't wait for me outside because “anything could happen.” Yes, she really said that. Rafi asked her, over and over, exactly what she thought could happen, but she just kept repeating, "Anything could happen.” So, previously I was told that he couldn't stay in the building because anything could happen, and now I was told he can't stay outside for the same reason.
Of course, the policy is really in place to protect the school from liability, “just in case” something happens and the parents decide to sue – that’s a whole other issue. But I have no doubt that the secretary and teachers who stopped my son really believe what they said about the dangers of “anything happening.” Is that really the message they want to send to children, that they believe the school is so unsafe that no child should be unattended for a moment in the classrooms or hallways? What about when students go to the bathroom by themselves or are called to the office?
My son and I have made a game out of speculating about the “anythings” that could happen. Aliens could abduct him from the hallways! Rampaging wildebeests could trample him! An asteroid could flatten the one classroom where he is doing his homework. Sadly, one thing we don’t expect anytime soon is an outbreak of logic or common sense.
Peter: Parenting today seems to be much more of a chore than it was for most families in the past. People are often choosing to have just one child, or none, because they can’t “afford” more—either financially, or in terms of investment of time and energy. People who see their children as their “products,” who assume personal responsibility for their children’s failures and personal credit for their successes, are burdened by parenting. I’m wondering if you can tell readers something about the joys of parenting and about how to remove or at least reduce the sense of it being a burden.
Danielle: Overall, parents need to step back and stop treating their kids like projects to be managed and optimized. They are human beings who deserve the time, space, and respect to live their own lives without constant direction, protection, and correction. Hyper-parenting betrays a disturbing lack of faith in and respect for children, and it hurts kids by undermining their development, instincts, and abilities. Today’s hyper-vigilant way to parent is not only a historically new way to parent; it is a fundamentally harmful way.
Of course parents need to be involved in their kids’ lives, but never before have parents felt the need to be so controlling, which is ironic given that we live in one of the most peaceful and productive societies that humankind has ever known. Most of the pressure that parents feel to raise perfect kids comes from the media, their peers, and frankly, themselves. The good news is that parents have the power to step back and reject these new, harmful norms. It’s not easy, but it's possible, and I encourage it for the parents’ own sake, and most important, for their kids’ sake, before it’s too late.
While there are many (mostly irrational) reasons why parents have become so fearful about allowing their kids out of their sight, the constant influx of bad news that comes into our homes and minds via the media certainly contributes. I think one of the main reasons why my husband and I feel so comfortable allowing our kids to have the same freedoms we had is that we don’t consume a lot of television, so we are not constantly barraged with false information about crimes against children, which, in reality, are very, very, very rare! Parents who want to reduce their anxiety and give their kids more independence should start by limiting their own consumption of dramatic news and crime programs and seek out the statistics on how safe our communities actually are today.
Readers, what do you think? If you were a judge trying to decide whether Danielle and Alexander have the right to allow their 10-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl the freedoms they do, or whether Child Protective Services should take their children away if they fail to change their ways, what would you decide? How does the Meitivs’ parenting approach compare with your own? How does it compare with how you were parented when you were a child? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, opinions, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.
For much more about young people’s needs for free play, exploration, and time away from adults, see Free to Learn.