The Bystander Effect

What is it like to be the neighbor of a “free-range kid”?

Child walking to school on her own
If your children are out and unsupervised, it’s reasonable to assume that other parents may intervene in ways you think unnecessary.

Photo by Dink’s Designs/Shutterstock

The Meitiv family of Maryland—scientists Danielle and Alexander, their 10-year-old son, and their 6-year-old daughter—became the national faces of the “free-range parenting” movement in December. That’s when police, acting on an anonymous call, picked up the kids as they walked home alone from a park in Silver Spring, resulting in a Child Protective Services investigation and a finding of “unsubstantiated” child neglect. It wasn’t the first time that a neighbor had called the authorities about the children playing on their own. Voluminous media coverage followed, peaking with a trip to the Today show.

The Meitivs were back in the news last week when the kids landed in the back of a police car again. “Two Children Walk Unattended; Neighbors Lose Their Minds,” read a typical headline. Free-range advocate Lenore Skenazy painted the Meitivs’ neighbors as “busybodies,” and in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak held up the Meitivs’ ordeal as proof that “we’ve morphed from being a village that helps raise children to a parenting police state,” speculating that whoever called the police on the Meitivs “wanted to get back at them” for their free-range advocacy. “If that adult who called police was worried about the kids,” Dvorak asked, “why not talk to them?”

This insta-narrative—about the snooping neighbor twitching the curtains and speed-dialing the cops every time the Meitiv kids wander a block from their home to pick flowers in the park—was irresistible.

It was also untrue. The 911 caller was a guy walking his dog who’d never seen the children before; when the operator asked the caller if he’d spoken to them, he replied, “I don’t want to scare them.” At the time of the call, the kids were about to enter a multilevel parking garage in a sparse commercial block of Silver Spring, next to the Greyhound station and across from a vape, hookah, and smoke shop.

I don’t know the Meitivs personally. But I live and parent two small children in their community of Silver Spring/Takoma Park—an area known as “the Berkeley of the East”—and its reputation for hippy-dippy deference to any and all parenting philosophies is well-earned. (As one dad told me, “The helicopter parents live in Bethesda.”) It’s laughable to portray the parents here as a Stasi of hypervigilant snoops. There are no roaming bands of snitches stalking free-range kids around our neighborhoods. In East Silver Spring and Takoma Park, tree-lined (often sidewalkless) streets, colorful bungalows, and tens of parks are a quick walk to a bustling downtown, two metro stations, and thoroughfares both major (the very busy Georgia Avenue) and down-at-heel (the block with the parking garage).

I’ve spoken to 12 parents who do know the Meitivs—none of whom have called the authorities about the family—about what it’s like to be the neighbor of a free-range family when you yourself are raising non-free-range kids. Most of these neighbors didn’t want their quotations attributed for fear of being attacked by free-range advocates (whether on social media or at the local playground). This admittedly adds to the ambience of gossip and police-state conjecture around the Meitivs, of course, and it doesn’t help that the Meitivs are “respectfully declining all media interviews”; their lawyer declined my request for comment. But the neighbors’ observations, even anonymous, add shading and nuance to what’s so far been a black-and-white story pitting loving parents and innocent kids against busybody neighbors and overreaching police. Their observations shed light on the inevitable friction that results when free-range kids are sent into a decidedly un-free-range world.

The Meitivs are, by all accounts, “nice, kind, together” kids who—like all normal children—sometimes get into trouble and need help when unsupervised, at least in the view of non-free-range parents. Andy Sullivan, an East Silver Spring dad, recalls being at a playground a few years back, the Meitivs playing nearby, when an adult began yelling at the older Meitiv. “Suddenly he yells, ‘Hey! I saw that! You just punched her in the face! Where’s your mom and dad?’ He was quite irate. Kid denies hitting his sister, adult insists—‘Did not,’ ‘Yes you did’—and finally the adult says, ‘I’m taking you home. Where do you live?’ and marches them off.” In Sullivan’s view, “Bystanders are forced to step in and enforce discipline because the parents aren’t around.”

One neighbor told me about the time the Meitiv kids were escorted “through the crowd at the Takoma Folk Festival to look for their parents because they didn’t know where they were.” Another told me, “I watched the kids cross a street without looking for traffic, and a truck driver had to hit their brakes to let the kids cross.”

Again, this might all sound like so much gossip. None of these stories are damning—they only tell us that the Meitivs are kids who act like kids. And of course, a free-range parent might respond that there was no cause for adults to intervene in any of these situations. “Parents need to step back and stop treating their kids like projects to be managed and optimized,” Danielle Meitiv told Psychology Today recently. “They are human beings who deserve the time, space, and respect to live their own lives without constant direction, protection, and correction.”

The conflict, however, is that sometimes free-range kids will find themselves unattended in the company of parents who follow an entirely different style of parenting—parents who have no way of knowing what the kids’ circumstances are. The Meitivs say they get ahead of this problem by having their kids wear badges reading “I’m a Free Range Kid,” but four different parents who frequently saw the Meitiv kids at Spring Park say they never wore the badges. Multiple sources who saw the Meitiv kids all the time said they didn’t know they were “free range” until the first incident with CPS. The Meitiv parents didn’t explain their parenting approach to any of the parents I spoke to. As a result, all the adults saw were two young children alone.

In many ways, the free-range philosophy is noble in fostering independence and self-reliance in kids. But it also shifts parenting responsibility to a community that largely does not share that philosophy, and thus other parents may feel put-upon, aggrieved, and underappreciated. If your children are out and unsupervised, it’s reasonable to assume that other parents may intervene in ways you think unnecessary—interventions that you, and they, may frankly dislike. But they will intervene nonetheless, driven by the same impulse we all want in our neighbors: to protect children from harm.

“When I see kids alone, I do look for the parents,” says one Silver Spring mom. But “as an involved parent, I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s kids who I don’t even know. I will help a hurt or lost child. And I will happily help out friends who ask for help with their kids. But I don’t want to have to watch over random kids.”

Or, as one neighbor put it, “What are you supposed to do if you see two kids alone in a parking lot? Nothing? What would you do?”  

Update, April 21, 2015, at 4:17 p.m.: This piece has been updated since it was first published to include the number of sources to whom the author spoke and to incorporate a response from the Meitivs’ lawyer.