The lost language of the trees

 

Mosses_on_a_tombstone_wiki_cc_-ndrwfgg

I used to talk to plants. Some of my dearest friends were trees. I held long conversations with the grass in my backyard; dug deep with the pines trees that dominated the forests of my overnight camp. I listened for hours to the intricate patterns of moss and lichens that clung to the nooks and crevices of the rock-face behind my cabin. Looking closely, I could understand the contours of their miniature hills and valleys, and trace their pathways with my eyes. I dreamed of being small enough to wander those tiny byways myself. I loved the rock, too, and caressed the sparkling texture of its multi-colored veins, marveling at the changes it had lived through during its many millions of years.

I exchanged greetings with with wild herbs, brushing against them to release the response of their sweet scent, communicating their rightness with the world. I had a close friend who was a mulberry tree; we shared secrets and sweet berries while I spent hours high up in her branches. We visited together long after her berry season was over. Multi-colored mushrooms poked their funny heads above the soil to say hello, hinting mischievously of their massive presence entangled with the plant roots and soil beneath my feet. I admit my eyes and ears were too coarse to befriend the most numerous beings of all: the microbes, bacteria and fungi. But I appreciated their efforts nonetheless, and marveled at their beautiful forms in photos and on microscope slides.

800px-Armadillidium_vulgare_001I talked to the insects, too. I asked the ants where they were going, so focused and intent. Down on my knees, my schoolbag forgotten on the sidewalk, I would follow them and learn their secrets. About the dead beetle feast they had discovered in the grass, or the sticky bonanza of piece of candy dropped by the curb. Earthworms were my friends too, along with the pill bugs, or roly-polys, who curled up when I lifted the rock roof off their home. With patience, I could coax them out of hiding to wander across my palm. Millipedes did the same. (Not centipedes, however. They disappeared quickly when the light appeared, and their impressive pincers demanded deference and respect). I kept company with bumblebees, sharing the joy of their gathering, as they conversed with the heart of a flower in a low, steady hum. I had other animal buddies. Frogs were close companions; I eavesdropped on the full-throated debates of big bulls and the sharp trilling repartee of spring peepers and leopards. Choruses of cicadas and crickets shared their passion with me every summer night. Deer were my friends, from a respectful distance, as were the mice and rabbits, raccoons and opossum who shared the forests with me summer after summer. The fish in the lakes flashed their silver sides in greeting. Turtles lifted their heads to nod a lazy greeting; snakes left their s-shaped calligraphy in the dust where I passed.

I still talk to the plants and the bugs. Sometimes. I walk barefoot in the grass, and sit in the garden. I run my bare hands through the soil, reveling in its moist richness. I stand on the porch watching the honeybees go about their work. Just standing among them as they fly to and fro, coming and going from myriad errands. Some tasks are obvious from the bulging pollen pouches on their legs; others deeply mysterious but not doubt equally important to their sisters. I can’t understand them as well as I did when I was younger, but I still enjoy their presence. I hope they like mine. I am grateful that they at least tolerate it. Honey-bee-pollen-basket

We’ve lost touch – the moss and bees, frogs, mice, and flowers I knew so well. Occasionally, I try to reach out to them. But there are so many distractions in the human world. So many thing, so many ideas, so much to do. The world of my earliest companions is more focused on being. Sure they get a lot done in a day – far more than a human could imagine. Relative to her size, a honeybee covers more ground in her short lifetime than even the most dedicated frequent flyer. A simple dandelion or milkweed is the very definition of productive, performing the fundamental task of converting the raw energy of the sun. With patience and might, plants create the food and structure that supports nearly every other living thing on Earth. And they do it so beautifully! Not content to just get the job done, they entice and attract, interacting with their neighbors through form, scent, taste, and a riot of color. I try to read their messages. When I have time. When I can slow down enough to shape my thoughts into our common language. The universal tongue. It’s not the voice of advertisements or TV, cars or computers. The babble of social media has nothing in common with your average brook.

Like a half-forgotten lullaby, words come to me, but it takes more effort these days. I touch the lavender and thyme when I walk, and tune in their replies, delivered in richly scented voices. The grass communicates in sign with the soles of my feet and the soil takes my hand with its coolness. But my comprehension has declined. The bees still chatter while they work and sometimes I get a glimpse of their intricate informative dances, but I have no clue of what they’re saying. The mulberries trees in my adult life grew from saplings to majestic trees before my eyes. But when they failed to produce much fruit this year, and their leaves were spotted with yellow, I could only watch with growing dismay, unable to interpret their suffering. The Eastern swallowtails I nurtured through the winter just a few years ago have not left their progeny among the dill and fennel I planted for them, nor have the monarchs returned to their milkweed patch. Why? They aren’t saying. A wood mouse popped out of my garden for a quick hello while I was sowing sweet potatoes, and I waved to him or his cousin who foraged for drops of honey among my empty bee boxes. But the one I found limping across my walkway this morning couldn’t tell me where the pain was or what I could do to offer comfort.640px-Apodemus_sylvaticus_(Sardinia) (1)

I have forgotten that language, the words that helped me feel at one with the world. Although their sounds are all around me, the meanings of the rustles and the chirps and the hums are lost. The beeps I respond to these days are electric and insistent. The rumblings speak of trains and trucks, not distant storms. I walk down the sidewalk and feel the concrete distance between me and the Earth, but I don’t stop to check for ant trails or bugs. Injured birds and mammals used to find succor in my home – now I look away, ashamed of my ignorance of their needs and unwilling to risk the pain of watching them die because of my incompetence.

My distance. My disconnect. So much of it comes down to fear. Instead of awe, reverence, and respect, I relate to the world through a deep sense of inadequacy. Shame. Fear. Fear of injury. Fear of disease. Fear of losing myself in the wilderness. (As if losing oneself wasn’t the goal of 99% of human busyness and addiction). Fear of loneliness and disconnect from the billions of living and non-living beings who are around me at every moment. And fear of pain. Not the pain of injury or a sting, although I’d gotten plenty of those. A deeper pain. A more existential pain.

Years ago, at a construction site in Northwest Washington DC, I saw a metal behemoth grab a mature tree around the trunk and yank – I can still hear the terrible crack when its hundred year old back was broken. How many cracks can appear before you tune them out? How many fields can you see torn up for luxury housing? How many skies darkened with pollution? How many rivers clogged with poison and beaches washed away by rising seas before you wall off your heart to keep from crying every time you read of another dying species, or step out your front door and confront the scores of injuries that one clever but not-so-bright animal has inflicted on all the others?

I want to go back. To the woods, to the wilds, to the rivers, and the streams. Not only to the ones of my youth, but those in the here and now, that are part of the intertwined ecosystem I live in today. I need to go back. Because of my fear. In spite of my pain. Maybe my old friends will help me deal with my confusion. Maybe they can teach me to embrace my pain and heal, the way a mighty tree does after a lightning strike. For a have been struck – dumb, blind – and I need to learn how to go on, proud and strong. I pray it’s not too late. I pray that they will welcome me back, this wayward, destructive, ignorant ape who has brought so much harm. I miss my home among the trees. I miss all my friends and wish desperately to catch up. To chat once again with the insects, to learn ridiculous, truths from the frogs, garner the essential knowledge of the rocks and leaves.

I just need to learn the words again. Not a secret code – not at all – but the common tongue of all things who share this brilliant beautiful green and blue world. The world that speaks to us all in so many ways. Every. Single. Moment. If we can only remember how to listen again.

harriman

For kids, failure is a critical ingredient in success

TheGiftOfFailureFailure is a critical ingredient in success, especially for kids. If that statement seems counter-intuitive or even contradictory, it’s time for you to check out Jessica Lahey’s wonderful book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

The Gift of Failure focuses on the benefits of letting kids make mistakes. Lahey starts with a brief overview of “how failure became a dirty word” in parenting, and why making your kids dependent on you is a really bad idea. Then she dives in to the nitty-gritty, how-to of raising successful kids. Each chapter emphasizes how failure promotes success in every area of a kid’s life, from household duties (she recommends ditching the word “chores”) to sports, homework, and friendships.

Parenting for Autonomy and Competence

Like the experienced school teacher she is, Lahey breaks her lessons down into easy-to-understand ideas, and includes concrete examples, and detailed advice for parents of kids from pre-school through high school. (If only she had been one of my teachers in middle school!) For me, the most eye-opening chapter–the one I kept reading aloud to my husband until he escaped to another room to finish reading his own book–was Chapter 3, “Less Really Is More: Parenting for Autonomy and Competence.”

Lahey assumes that if you’re an American parent in the 21st century, you probably need a bit of help stepping back and giving your kids more autonomy. (If so, you’re in good company). She starts by laying out some of the behaviors that define controlling versus autonomy-supporting parents. You may be surprised to find where some of your standard procedures fall. (Even this “free-range” mom recognized herself in some of the controlling practices). Thankfully, Lahey spends the rest of the chapter giving general suggestions for shifting to autonomy-supporting behaviors. The second half of the book dives deeper into specific areas, with advice on how to support kids’ autonomy and learning in school, friendships, etc.

Whose Life is it Anyway?

While the book talks about all the good reasons that parents should let their kids fail, there’s another lesson lurking within Lahey’s book: for kids to succeed, parents must stop linking their child’s success in school, sports, etc. to their own (the adult’s) need to feel like successful parents. Lahey is sympathetic to parents who are guilty of this, and confesses that she had to come to grips with this tendency herself:

I had to stop equating the act of doing things for my children…with good parenting. It still feels good to do things for them, and I still do–all the time. But the things I do for them are different now, and my motivations are based on an evaluation of their needs, not mine. Before I was doing things they could do for themselves to feel good about my parenting.

Boom. Before hovering over the homework or insisting on another hour of clarinet practice, parents need to stop and ask themselves who really benefits when they do all the work. Are you hovering because that’s what’s best for your darling, or because it makes you feel like a winner as a parent?

It’s an important distinction–as Lahey makes clear in her book, the kids whose lives are micromanaged lose out in the end. Their intrinsic motivation dies, as does the pleasure that comes from owning their achievements. And of course when everything is done for a child, he never develops competency in basic life skills. Whether it’s sorting the laundry, resolving conflicts with “mean” kids, or writing a college essay, at some point your kids are going to have to do for themselves. When, if not during childhood, the time when they’re supposed to be learning life’s most important lessons?

What do you think: should kids be “allowed” to fail? What about when grades, championships, and college acceptances are on the line? Were you allowed to fail as a kids? If so, or not, how has your parents’ attitude affected your success and confidence as an adult? Let us know, in the comments below!  

************************

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam. She loves to talk about kids, parenting, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and experienced public speaker, and is represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.

Kids need outdoor play

Dvora & Rafi Meitiv up a tree
A kid’s natural habitat

My previous blog post talked about the many reasons that free play is critical for healthy child development. But time free play is disappearing for most kids, especially free play outdoors.

A 2012 study of over 4 million children found that on most days, more than 40% of preschoolers didn’t even have one opportunity to play outdoors. Not a single chance to touch the grass, breathe fresh air, or bask in the sun. That’s a dramatic change from just one generation ago: in a national survey, 830 mothers were asked to compare their own childhood play with their children’s—eighty-five percent agreed that their children played outdoors less than they had at the same age. 70% of mothers said they had played outdoors daily, and 56% said they did so for 3 hours or more. Regarding their kids’ play, the percentages were 31% daily, and 22% for three hours or more.

Kids today are under house arrest

Many parents claim that “screens” lure children indoors and away from outdoor physical activities. It is true that kids are spending a lot of their time using technology: a 2012 UCLA study found that 90% of children’s leisure time is spent indoors with television, video games, and computers. However, studies in the UK found that 40% of kids would rather play outside, but their parents wouldn’t let them, citing concerns about traffic and ‘stranger danger.’ In the survey of 830 American mothers, most admitted that they restricted their children’s outdoor play, with 82% citing “safety” including fear of crime as the primary reason, in spite of the fact that all categories of violent crime are at their lowest point in forty years.

When kids are allowed outside, it’s usually to participate in a scheduled or organized activity. A survey by the U.S. National Centers for Disease Control for that in a typical week 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% played on their own. Many parents believe that participation in team sports is beneficial for kids and there is evidence to support that view. But this participation should not come at the expense of free play and when the benefits are compared, free play comes out ahead. A study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that hours spent participating in organized sports were negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings were positively correlated with adult creativity.

Some parents justify channeling their children into sports rather than free play on the grounds that the children might get hurt if allowed to play without structure or guidance. The opposite is true. A study of more than 1,200 children, from 8 to 18 years old, who visited 2 Chicago hospitals, found that children were more likely to be injured if they spent twice as much time per week in organized sports as they did in free play. Why? “Unlike team sports, individual play in nature allows the child to tailor exercise to his or her own interests and abilities, often in conjunction with creative efforts,” says the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).

Kids need outdoor play

According to the AAP, playing outdoors, in nature, “allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances,” that kids need. “Play in nature provides children with opportunities for self-directed physical activity that can help promote physical health and reduce obesity.” Angela Hascom, pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, says that as the amount of time kids spend outdoors decreases, sensory deficits are increasing and she’s seeing more kids with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems. “A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory input it needs in order to develop into a strong and capable individual.”

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, speculates that the rise in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among school children may stem in part from ‘nature deficit disorder’–the growing alienation of humans, especially children, from the natural world. While Louv stressed that the term as not meant to be scientific or diagnostic, evidence shows that time spent in nature can increase creativity, speed healing, and reduce anxiety and depression – in kids as well as adults.

 

What can parents do?

Let kids go outside! Let them explore the yard or a local park. Crime is lower today than it has been in forty years so there’s no reason to keep the kids in. Some of them may resist—if they’re used to being entertained, it may take them a little while to get into the groove of playing by themselves. But I guarantee, given the chance, most kids will take to free outdoor play like, well, kids – because it’s what they’re built to do.

What are your memories of playing outside as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.

 

 

Playtime’s Over!

stuckinside
Just let the poor kid play!

Playtime’s over, kids! Bossy adults have all but killed it, replacing traditional free play with organized sports, extracurricular activities, and myriad ‘teachable moments’ designed to build a better child.

Over the past fifty years, the time kids spend in free play has declined dramatically, with the greatest losses occurring in the past few decades. From 1981 to 1997, playtime decreased more than 7 hours a week. Kids lost another 2 hours between 1997 to 2003. Overall, these losses added up to more than 12 hours a week over the past 25 years. Much of that time was stolen by what adults see as more ‘productive’ pursuits, such as schoolwork and team sports. But a growing body of research–piles and piles of it!– shows that kids learn best when left to what they do best: play.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): “play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” Play is so important to optimal child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes it as a right of every child. Classical educator Christopher Perrin notes that the ancient Greeks saw play as so fundamental to children that the word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates recognizes the wisdom of letting children learn through play: “Don’t use force in training children in the studies but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each child is natural directed towards.”

What is play?

Not all children’s activities qualify as play. Most serious scholars of play (and there are many, odd as that may seem) don’t even group organized activities like sports in the same category. Anthropologist David Lancy, author of the highly-acclaimed (and very readable) text, The Anthropology of Childhood, views the idea that “adults might intervene to structure or control children’s play” as a “contradiction in terms” because for those who study play in culture around the world, the very definition includes attributes like “voluntary”, “purposeless”, “child-centered” “autonomous” and “autotelic” (= an end in itself). That is, “play” structured by adults isn’t play at all and fails to provide the myriad essential benefits that children and other mammals can only get from free play. According to Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, “free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself. Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play.”

The benefits of free play

Decades of research compiled by the AAP strongly suggests that undirected, unstructured play, or free play “allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.” When play is child-driven, children have the opportunity to “practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.” By contrast, “when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.” A robust study led by Dr. Jane E. Barker of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder found that “[t]he more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.” (Executive functioning encompasses those skills that help people gets things done, such as plan, focus, manage time, and control behavior).

Dr. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, thinks “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.” His research has shown that play leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is most highly developed in humans and is responsible for executive functioning. But only free play produced this kind of brain development—play without adult intervention, coaches or rulebooks. It appears that the negotiation and problem-solving involved in even the simplest children’s games build the circuits in the brain that are essential for navigating the many complex social interactions and challenges that are part of human life.

If play is so critical to developing bodies and minds, why do kids get so little of it these days? What attitudes and activities have contributed to the loss of free play and what can we do to reverse those trends? I’ll examine these questions and more later in the week. In the meantime, check out the fun video I made with the kids about child’s play, a spoof on that Disney song, called ‘Let Them Go!’

What are your memories of playing as a child? Were you allowed (or expected) to entertain yourself or did you spend time in organzied activities? What do you think about the state of children’s play today? Let us know in the comments below! 

Want to joint the conversation about kids, parents, and society? Follow this blog (click the button on the right) and check out my Facebook page.
Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam.  She loves to talk about kids, parents, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and opinionated public speaker and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.

 

 

Avoiding Risk Can Be Hazardous to Your Kid’s Health

In last week’s blog post, Parenting is Risky Business, I wrote about the dangers of using “risk” as a criterion for determining child neglect: risk is subjective, and parenting involves weighing and taking risks all the time. Of course, parents want to shield their children from harm. But in the past few decades, has this desire morphed into an obsessive drive to shield them from all risk – one which does far more harm than good?

Control
From birth until 18…

Many American parents fear the risk of allowing their children too much freedom, but rarely consider the risk of giving them too little. There is a growing sense of “surplus safety;” that everything potentially dangerous must be avoided. However, it is impossible to truly avoid all danger, and the attempt to do so would lead to a dreary life.

Excessive avoidance of risk may even hinder a child’s development. The girl testing her limits on the monkey bars and the boy begging to explore his neighborhood out of his parent’s sight are not reckless children out for meaningless kicks (or to give their parents heart attacks). They are engaging in ‘risky play,’ activities that carry the possibility of physical injury or getting lost, which Norwegian evolutionary psychologist Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter believes are developmentally necessary to combat debilitating phobias later in life.

The ‘non-associative model of fear acquisition’ suggests that people don’t develop phobias through exposure to or ‘association’ with scary situations or objects, like heights or snakes. Instead, infants are born with instinctive fears of situations that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle, such as the fears of strangers, dangerous animals, and the dark. As they grow, the exhilaration that comes from playful risk-taking allows them to confront and reprogram their reactions to these threats. Such play also allows children to rehearse handling the risks they may face as adults.

Children who are denied such opportunities to challenge themselves may have a higher incidence of mental illness as adults. According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, the sharp decline in opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised play, which often involves risky play, has contributed to an equally dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, feeling of helplessness, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults.

Helping children learn to handle risk doesn’t mean tossing them out into the world to fend for themselves. Kids can develop the necessary skills gradually, by taking on progressively greater physical challenges or expanding the area in which they can roam without adults. Our kids started with unsupervised play in our front yard, and progressed to walks and bike rides around the block, to local stores, and to the library. (And up taller and taller trees).

We Americans once prided ourselves on our courage and willingness to take risks. Most of us descend from people who risked everything to leave their homelands and make a new life in this country. Every day, we decide which risks to take and which to avoid. By trying to avoid unlikely or minor threats, we may expose our children to far greater risks: The risk of growing up anxious, inept, or unable to take care of themselves. The risk of not developing resilience or the ability to judge the appropriateness of different kinds of behavior. What we risk most of all is raising children unprepared to meet the challenges essential to creating rich, rewarding lives; challenges Americans have proudly met for generations.

What do you think? Is it worth it to let kids take risks? 

Where have all the children gone?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Signs of a different time. 

When I was growing up, and for nearly every generation before mine, kids were expected to entertain themselves in their free time without adult supervision. The idea that two children couldn’t walk in their own neighborhood without an adult—either because they were incapable or it was unsafe—would have been laughable. Kids were kicked out of the house and told to “be home by dinner.”

But no longer.

The world is different today—it’s much, much safer than when I was a kid. So why are American parents paranoid about letting their kids out of their sight? German reporter Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Die Welt, wrote in the New York Times about the contrast between parenting in Berlin and suburban Maryland. Back home, it wasn’t unusual for his girls, ages 8 and 11, to take the metro alone, go to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson without parental supervision. But when he suggested that practice to American parents, many were “horrified.” In hundreds of emails, messages, and tweets, people from France, Israel, Australia, The Netherlands, New Zealand and elsewhere have shared with me stories of the freedom and responsibility given to children in their cultures.

Why not here? The American situation is even more confusing because such freedom was the norm for children and parents in this country not too long ago.

According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, children are less free today than any time in human history, with the exception of periods of slavery or intense child labor. But his research, as well as that of many others in his field, demonstrates that kids need time on their own, away from adults. Time to explore the world at their own pace and make sense of it in their own ways. By supervising kids at all times and controlling their activities, American parents, and society as a whole, reveal a disturbing lack of faith in children’s intelligence and competency. They also deny kids opportunities to experience classic adolescent milestones, such as learning to navigate their neighborhoods, going on sleepovers, getting paid jobs, and attending overnight camps—actives that social work professor and family therapist Dr. Michael Ungar sees as critical rites of passage that have aided the maturation process for generations.

Over the past year, I have heard stories from American adults who grew up “free-range” —what comedian Bill Maher notes was just called “parenting” back then—and have read many nostalgic accounts of childhood adventures. Author Mitch Albom put it best when he said that his parents would have been in jail if today’s over-protective standards had been applied when he was growing up.

Ironically, as children’s freedom outdoors has been severely curtailed, their privilege within the family has grown dramatically. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that, with the exception of ancient royal heirs, American kids may be the most overindulged brats in history. They have little to no responsibility, and are raised with fewer limits than in the past. Chores and part-time jobs are seen as wastes of time. Set bedtimes and mealtimes are quaint relics from the past. Few restrictions are set on TV and videos games, and even parents who can ill-afford to do so spoil their kids with toys, clothing, and other purchases. Behaviors that were considered non-negotiable in the past, like civility and basic respect for adults, are seen as optional or even a hindrance to parents who aim to be their kids’ best friends.

So…in spite of the reduction in crime over the past generation, AND expert agreement on the importance of structure, limits, and accountability for children, it seems that the only real boundary many modern parents enforce is the front door.

Parenting is Risky Business

[Yesterday, I was invited to testify before the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on a bill related to Child Protective Services. The sponsor pulled the bill from consideration while I was en route – this post is adapted from the comments I prepared for that hearing].

My name is Danielle Meitiv. I am a Maryland resident and mother of two children: Rafi, 11, and, Dvora 7. From October 2014 to June 2015, my husband and I were subjected to three neglect investigations by Child Protective Services (CPS) of Montgomery County, Maryland. In the first incident, we allowed our children, then ages 10 and 6, to play at a park one block from our house without adult supervision. In the other two instances, we allowed them to play at a park one-mile from our home and walk back, again without an adult. In all three investigations, my husband and I were cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Being wrongly investigated and indicated for inadequate supervision is more harmful to families than it may seem to the general public,” says Diane Redleaf of the Family Defense Center.

Flickr_-_USCapitol_-_Restoration_Work_Underway_on_Supreme_Court_West_Façade
The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes parents’ rights – shouldn’t CPS? 

Some people might think that it is better to investigate innocent families than to risk missing actual abuse or neglect. This ignores the harm that wrongful  investigations inflict on children and their families. Our children were pulled from their classrooms, interrogated and frightened by a CPS caseworker, lied to, and held against their will for hours in the back of a police car without access to food or a bathroom. We were not notified that the children had been  into custody until almost three hours after the fact, and they were not returned to us for two more hours. My son later told me that he thought he was going to an orphanage and would never see me again, and both children still want to hide when they see the police.

Children can be deeply traumatized by these forcible, unwarranted separations and their parents are left to pick up the pieces, with little or no help or apology from the authorities. Our family can certainly attest to that – we sought therapy to help our children deal with the post-traumatic stress induced by their ordeal, and it was a full month before we were all able to sleep without nightmares. Because most people assume that CPS only intervenes or removes children in cases where there is a clear threat of serious harm, “there have been few consequences for child welfare authors who indicate parents of neglect or remove a child from the home without evidence,” according to a 2015 report by the Family Defense Center.

Our children are not the only ones who have suffered. According to a report published by the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, from 2008 to 2012, the number of referrals to CPS agencies nationwide increased by 8.3% to 6.3 million children, the while overall rates of actual child victimization declined by 3.3%. That means that over this period, the rate of wrongful investigation increased significantly. These wrongful investigations wasted government resources, which would have been better spent on children and families who actually needed intervention and support.

Nationwide and in the State of Maryland, a root cause of the increase in wrongful investigationsis the vague and inappropriate definition of child neglect. Maryland law 5-701 includes under the definition of neglect “the leaving of a child unattended…under circumstances that indicate… that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” The use of “risk” as a criterion is a serious problem because it is subjective and fails to take into account the risk management decisions that are an essential aspect of parenting. Every parenting action entails a level of risk, whether it is allowing your child to play football, ride in a car, walk home from the park unattended, or sit in front of the television all day.

This criterion also infringes on the rights of parents to make those decisions. As recently as 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reffirmed that “it cannot now be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children”. [Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000)]

The child welfare policies and practices of most states, including Maryland, directly violate these rights. In June of 2015, the Maryland Department of Health and Human Services announced a “clarification” of their guidelines, stating that an unattended child would not automatically trigger an investigation for neglect. This is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The laws that govern child neglect in Maryland, and every state nationwide, must change to recognize the Constitutional rights of parents to raise their children, without risking government intrusion or harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that fathers – and mothers – know best. State laws must recognize this as well.

Kids Need Their Freedom – Just Like in the Past!

Let Them Go!

[Sung to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go”]

The streets are quiet and empty, not a child to be seen.
They’re all in isolation, just staring at a screen.
Supervised activities, when they’re even allowed outside.
Shouldn’t keep them in, they need the exercise.

Don’t let them climb. Don’t let them run.
Who ever said that childhood was fun?
Protect, direct, why take the chance?

But we need a chance!

Let them go! Let them go! Don’t hold them back anymore.
Let them go! Let them go!
They’re old enough to go to the store.
Let them play. It’s just a few blocks away.
Don’t call the cops.
They won’t bring the kids home anyway.

It’s funny how our parents just let their kids play ball.
And the fears we let control us didn’t bother them at all.
It’s time to see what kids can do. Let them test their limits just like you.
Learn right from wrong; just let them be
Be free!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them play under the big blue sky.
Let them go! Let them go! It’s time to let them try.
Let them run and let them play.
Don’t call the cops…

So many games to play and adventures to be found
Kids organize themselves when you let them run around.
And one thought barrels in, like a child running fast.
Kids need their freedom, just like in the past!

Let them go! Let them go! Let them venture off of the lawn.
Let them go! Let them go! That anxious child is gone.
Take a stand. You can start today.
It’s up to us.
We know what kids need – it’s child’s play.

Vocals by Dvora, Rafi, Danielle, & Alexander Meitiv, and David, Isaac, & Randall Luttenberg

Video by Russell Max Simon

Lyrics by Danielle Meitiv

 

Just the Facts

Fact: According to the FBI, the United States today is as safe, or safer, than it has been in more than forty years.

blog_violent_crime_six_large_cities_2According to the New York Times:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

Fact: Just one generation ago, when todays parents were kids, children were given much greater freedom and responsibility than they are allowed today.

Author Mitch Albom describes a childhood much like that which I, and the majority of today’s parent, enjoyed:

I walked half a mile to school as a 6-year-old, rode a subway and two buses to school when I was 11 and was told by my mother, repeatedly, “Go outside and play somewhere. Anywhere!

Fact: In most places in the world, childhood independence and freedom are still the norm.

As Clemens Wergin, Washington bureau chief for Die Welt, explains:

…Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.

So, why do American parents think that their kids are incapable of handling the same level of independence they enjoyed when they were kids?

Why do they believe that their kids are less competent than their peers in other countries and in earlier times?

And if today’s kids are in fact less competent, whose fault is that?

 

 

Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, “free-range” mom, and very passionate, opinionated person. She is currently working on a book called “Fighting For the Future: A Parent’s Rebellion.” You can find her on Twitter:  @DanielleMeitiv , Facebook: Danielle Meitiv, and YouTube: Danielle Luttenberg Meitiv. She lives with her husband and her two famous, free-range kids in Silver Spring, MD.

Welcome!

You’ve reached the online home of Danielle Meitiv, the “Free-Range Mom” from Maryland

10712663_1052018581491759_7070809303040781943_o (1)

I’m a scientist, writer, and parent of kids who roam. (You might have heard about that last part…) I have a Master’s degree in oceanography and a lifelong love of science and the sea. When I’m not penning or parenting, I work as a science consultant to government agencies and non-profit  organizations.

I’m an opinionated parents who thinks a lot about how to raise kids who thrive – and I’m willing to stand up for my beliefs. Come say Hi on Twitter (@daniellemeitiv) and join the conversation about parenting and freedom on my Community Facebook Page. I’m represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.

Thanks for stopping by!

UPDATE:  As of June 2015, ALL of the CPS charges against us have been dropped. Now we are gearing up to bring the fight to them, to stand up for the freedom of all parents to raise their children independent and responsibly, as they see fit.  If you would like to help, please donate and/or spread the word about this fundraising campaign.

Click here to donate via Paypal.

All donations go through the National Association of Parents and are full tax-deductible.

Thanks for your support!

Danielle