Local officials, child development experts discuss ‘free-range’ parenting

In December 2014, the Montgomery County Department of Child Protective Services investigated two Maryland parents for neglect after they let their children — aged 10 and 6 — walk home unsupervised from a park about a mile from their house.

Ultimately, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv said they practice “free-range” parenting — a movement aimed at teaching children self-reliance by allowing them to test boundaries and make decisions progressively — and claimed that Child Protective Services had “bullied [them] into a point of view about child-rearing.”

“The incident that happened in Maryland sparked a lot of attention and a lot of alarm,” Phyllis Savides, director of social services for Albemarle County, said Tuesday to a packed cafeteria of parents at Burley Middle School. “We wanted to bring some reality here to just calm the alarm.”

Many parents expressed concern about receiving a call from child protective services after they feel they have appropriately prepared their child for a situation like walking home from school.

Denise Lunsford, commonwealth’s attorney for Albemarle County, said that if police or child protective services contact a parent and hear that he or she had taken reasonable steps to help their child prepare for the new responsibility, the intervention most likely would stop there.

The type of call Albemarle will give the most attention, Lunsford added, is when a very young child or toddler is walking unattended in an area like U.S. 29.

Before loosening the boundaries, Claudia Allen, a child psychologist at the University of Virginia Family Stress Clinic, said it’s important for parents to know their child, know their environment and prepare their child.

“So, if your child is a 10-year-old who is fairly cautious and very alert about her surroundings, she’s going to be ready to go before her cousin who is the same age but impulsive and kind of spacey,” Allen said, noting that children under the age of 13 shouldn’t supervise other children.

Allen suggested parents ensure there are safe walking routes, like sidewalks, before allowing children to walk alone and should be aware of potentially dangerous features such as railroad tracks and bodies of water that could entice a child.

Practice is also important, Allen said.

“You don’t send your kid walking alone to the library unless you’ve walked with them yourself, probably several times, so that they know the route and where to cross and they know if there is any particular hazard,” Allen said.

In sum, Allen said that the best way for parents to prepare their children for increased independence is to teach them to take care of themselves.

“We can’t keep our kids safe just by keeping them home, we have to actually prepare them, because they’re not always going to be home, and the adults they’re with might not even have common sense,” Allen said.

Savides said that if a parent or guardian has questions related to childhood supervision, they are welcome to contact either the Charlottesville or Albemarle social services departments.

“This is a first step,” Savides said. “We hope that this is a catalyst for conversations to happen.”