How free the range? How close the helicopter?
Prompted by a story gone viral on social media and elsewhere on the Internet out of Silver Spring, Maryland, discussions of what constitutes responsible parenting and when governments ought to involve themselves in it are active in the mainstream press and on main streets throughout the country; the story even appeared in London’s Daily Mail. In Maryland, a couple that would rate highly by almost any measure of involved and responsible parents came under investigation of the local child welfare agency after allowing their ten year old son and his six year old sister to walk home from a local park, about a mile along an admittedly busy street in what is suburban Washington, D.C. Many discussing this story believe that the parents’ behavior, which they acknowledge to have been planned and intentional, was terribly irresponsible and subjected the children to unacceptable risks and dangers in the community; many others believe that the parents appropriately provided the children with a reasonable exercise in learning about their environment, testing limits, making choices and growing up as strong, smart and independent individuals. Were the neighbors who called the police and the county agency who investigated the parents overreaching and out of line? Or were they protecting children put in harm’s way by parents failing in their duty? The case has become something of a touchstone in the context of the broader cultural and social face-off of “free range” vs “helicopter” parenting.
Pennsylvania, like the majority of American states, has no specific statutory requirement for what age a child must be before he or she can be left home alone. Some states, including Maryland, have laws requiring that children under a certain age (8 in MD) must be left with a responsible person over a certain age (13 in MD). Every county and state takes seriously the responsibility to investigate cases of neglect and reports of young children left alone, and almost always there is a very case-specific inquiry into the individual child(ren)’s particular circumstances and situation. Given the growing number of “latch-key kids,” some of whom live with only one parent at a time, and others of whom live with two parents who both work outside the home, these situations are not uncommon, nor have they been for quite some time. Increasingly though, it seems, the questions about parenting choices and styles have leapt out of the family room and into the media buzz. So called “free-range” parents express greater fear of being reported to authorities for neglecting their children than about any actual harm the children might encounter. And so-called “helicopter” parents maintain that the stakes are simply too high to allow for a margin of error, that there are no “do-overs,” should something disturbing or even tragic happen to a young child left without proper supervision.
Whatever your style of parenting, landing the helicopter you have been piloting alone or restricting the range you and your partner/co-parent had set, talking with your children about how to handle situations, safely teaching them self-reliance, and seeing their delight as they grow into it are surely among parenthood’s most challenging duties and greatest rewards.
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