Is it safe to be a free-range kid?

For The Baltimore Sun
How much freedom should kids have?

Is it OK for a 12-year-old to wander the Inner Harbor? Can an 8-year-old play alone in a neighborhood park in Columbia? Is it safe to let a 9-year-old walk to a friend's house in Towson?

"A question that comes up all the time is, 'How much freedom do you give your kids?' " says Hugh Bethell, a father of two and vice president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes families living in the city.

At socials organized by the Alliance, new parents frequently want to discuss limits set by more experienced parents, Bethell says.

The issue has gained new urgency following news that a social services agency is investigating a Montgomery County couple that let their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk a mile home from a neighborhood park. In book clubs and at bus stops, many parents are talking about whether and when it's safe — and legal — for kids to walk and play in their neighborhoods unsupervised.

"This case has sparked a national debate," says Paula Tolson, interim deputy director of communications for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Although authorities say confidentiality requirements forbid them from speaking directly about the Montgomery County case, they did try to clear up some of the misunderstanding about the law, which stems from old fire codes.

The provision says children under the age of 8 aren't allowed to be left in cars or homes alone, and that they can't be left in the care of anyone under 13 years old, Tolson says.

"This provision does not define what is 'neglect,' but it does provide some guidance as to the legislature's view of when a child is mature enough to be left alone or to care for another child," says Sandra Barnes, an assistant attorney general whose primary assignment is serving the child protective services unit at DHR. "There are certainly circumstances that do not violate this provision but which still constitute neglect, and vice versa."

The law does not address kids playing in parks or walking from friends' houses or schools without supervision, Barnes says.

"Every situation is unique — where the child is going, how long, their ability to contact someone in an emergency," she says. "There are so many variables."

The Montgomery County mother, who appeared on the TV show "Today" last week, says she and her husband have been working with their children, progressively increasing the distances they are allowed to walk alone.

The parents, who could not be reached for comment, told The Washington Post that they are under investigation for neglect by Montgomery County Child Protective Services, who were called when police stopped the children midway through their December walk and took them home.

"It does give you pause," says Jana Singer, a professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law.

Authorities have a duty to investigate possible neglect and mistreatment. But, Singer says, "From a constitutional perspective, we afford parents considerable leeway. … We have a tradition of deferring to parents in areas where reasonable people could disagree — about discipline, responsibility, how much TV to watch."

A more clearly defined law about children walking alone isn't the answer, says Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)," and who has a new cable series called "World's Worst Mom."

"There shouldn't be any laws at all. Parents should be deciding what's best for their children," Skenazy says.

"That's it's dangerous to walk through the neighborhood is fantasy," she says. "It's underestimating our kids. And it's overestimating the danger."

Determining when and where children should venture out in their neighborhoods is something that Bethell and many other Baltimore-area parents confront.

"It's something we've wrestled with," says Bethell, a father of two, who lives in Guilford after 15 years in Federal Hill.

Cellphones provide a measure of security, but he and many other parents also review routes and designate safe spots.

Bethell and his wife began by letting the kids walk to school and to the pool and then take the Circulator bus. Now that the oldest is 14, he's allowed to walk around the Inner Harbor with friends.

"He knows the lay of the land, even where the police officers hang out," says Bethell. "But you have to know your kid, if they're responsible.

"If you don't start working on decision-making by the time they're 9 or 10," he says, "there's no way they'll be good at it when they're 14 and the decisions they're making are really important."

Kelly McQuiston lets her almost-11-year-old and 13-year-old sons walk 11 or 12 blocks to and from school in South Baltimore.

"I know some of my relatives would be appalled that I let my kids walk in the city alone," she says. "But I have to teach them to be aware of their surroundings and how to navigate traffic. I can't do that if I'm holding their hand all the time."

Judy O'Brien, an Otterbein mother of three and founding president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, starting letting her daughters play in the neighborhood green space by themselves when they were about 6 to 8 years old. And she and her husband are talking about when their oldest daughter, now 10, will be ready to walk to school without a parent, and take the Circulator bus by herself to ballet class.

"We want to raise children who have a sense of independence, and who are aware of their surroundings and who can make their own decisions," she says. "We let them go, little by little."

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