Free Range or Neglectful Parenting

Readers who live in the Washington, DC, area are probably familiar with recent parenting headlines that became a hot topic for the media, our family therapists in MD— and every wagging tongue in the DMV.   A 10-year-old and his six-year-old sibling were brought home in a police car after being seen walking unaccompanied down a busy, urban street.  The parents were reported to child protective services for neglect and, from there, the media took over and opinions began to fly.  The term “free-range parenting” was thrown around, the pros and cons were weighed, and the public and experts argued over the merits and detriments.

I enjoy a healthy debate, and I think debates are essential for change and growth. However, I found this particular debate was carried out in a way that was not necessary or helpful.  I have always disdained anyone, beyond professionals such as family counselors in MD, making their strong opinions public through mommy/daddy blogs and social media.  I believe dissemination of opinions based on experience, but without a lot of research and fact behind it can be, in fact, quite dangerous. So, the point of my blog today is to set one main issue straight, so you can all make informed parenting decisions no matter where your philosophies lie.

I want each and every one of you to go and look up your state laws for leaving children unaccompanied. In all of the debates, did you hear anyone mention that the family actually did violate Maryland law?  I heard people condemn child protective services repeatedly, but child protective services personnel were just doing their job in accordance with the state guidelines and laws.  I am not here to debate the law or, in any way, condemn the family.  I am only writing about this today so you can make better informed decisions about parenting.   In the state of Maryland, a child under 8 can not be left alone or in the care of a child under thirteen. The older brother was not old enough to be considered able to be responsible for the care of his six-year-old sibling.  Here is a link to a great overview of the law in Maryland:  Maryland Child Care Fact Sheet.  Please research the laws in your state because they do differ drastically by jurisdiction.  In many states, this same choice would not have even made the police or child protective services bat an eye!

As a MD family therapist, I believe that free-range parenting methods, along with many, many parenting styles, are well worth the research so parents can learn how and why to incorporate different techniques into their parenting repertoire. Be cautious of your sources, however, because not all “experts” writing on the internet are actually verified experts.  In the end, it does not matter whether you agree with the law or not. What matters is that you parent within the law and protect your family by not putting them into a traumatic situation – the fear of your children being removed from your home is traumatic for parents and children alike.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.