When the news broke of the “free range parenting” controversy that has rocked America, starring parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of Silver Spring, Maryland and their children Dvora and Rafi, I was certain that the family in question were Israelis living in the U.S.
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It wasn’t just their Hebrew names that led me to that conclusion, but the behavior for which they have, by now, been intermittently lambasted and congratulated – allowing their 10-year-old and 6-year-old spend an afternoon playing in a public park unaccompanied by adults and letting them walk home on their own.
It turns out that the couple that has sparked a conversation about kids and safety aren’t Israeli at all – but American Jews who adhere to a philosophy called “Free Range” parenting that advocates actively fostering self-reliance in young children. It was the second time the couple has tangled with the government over the issue – they were under investigation for a similar incident in January. Now they are filing a suit against the government for unlawfully detaining their kids this time around without informing them, making them desperate with worry when they didn’t come home at their designated time.
But my confusion over their identity made sense, since many, if not most, Israeli parents I know would send children of a similar age to a neighborhood park a few blocks away on their own without a second thought (but, like the Meitiv kids, with a cell phone.)
The ideologically-driven anomaly in middle and upper-class American life known as “free-range” parenting is known merely as “parenting” in other parts of the world, where children, from a young age, are considered capable of navigating the outside world on foot without the constant supervision of an adult.
Friends back in the United States where I grew up – as a free-roaming child of the 1970s – have found it incredibly ironic as we compare parenting notes, that in what they perceive as the “dangerous” Middle East, I feel as if my kids are far less vulnerable to predators than they do.
Indeed, armed with stern lectures and multiple practice sessions on crossing the street, I went native when it comes to letting my children roam the neighborhood at a relatively young age, first in the company of an older sibling, and then alone. My 10-year-old rides a public bus home from school daily, as do many of her classmates. For years, if she has wanted to visit a friend’s home, she knows she can take off on foot, as long as I know where she is going and when to expect her back.
The reasons for the far lower level of fear of “stranger danger” in Israel are multifaceted. First, it is statistically justified – Israel simply has a far lower rate of violent crime than in the U.S. and a remarkably low murder rate.
Some of it is necessity-driven. Families are larger and so the level of supervision is lower. Schools in Israel often let out so early that parents have no hope of finding employment that will bring them home in time to greet them when they return, cannot afford nannies, and so, when no extended family is available to supervise, latchkey children are on their own at home for hours – and often responsible for smaller siblings, at a young age.
Moreover, Israelis tend to live in relatively close-knit and cohesive communities in which people look out for each other, and the smaller the community, the freer even tiny children are from an extremely young age – in the kibbutz, the moshav and, ironically, in the relative gated safety of enclosed small settlements in the West Bank.
To be sure, the pendulum can often swing too far in the direction of laxity – as many a horrified American or British immigrant to Israel has observed – and secular Israel has been known to stand in judgement of the population that writer Marjorie Ingall has called the most free-range of all: ultra-Orthodox Jews who “teach older siblings to essentially rear younger ones; they give kids responsibility and sharp knives and expect them to get from point A to point B without babying. When you have a family the size of a softball team, you can’t ferry them hither and yon all day.”
There have been occasions where I have been on the horrified, judgmental side of things. Recently, I seriously contemplated contacting the authorities when I saw five children, with no parent in sight, including a tiny child no older than one and a half. I winced as I saw that youngest child toddle towards the street while the eldest kid didn’t look up from his cell phone. Before I blew the whistle on them, the other siblings enticed the toddler back. In this case, there appeared to be safety in numbers.
When I told my “free-range” Israeli 10-year-old the story of the Meitivs, she couldn’t understand why the police would pick up the kids and keep them away from their parents. “Why aren’t the policemen spending their time catching the bad guys who might hurt them instead?” she asked.
I have plenty of moments when I struggle with raising a family in this country, and question the values and behavior that my kids are absorbing outside the home. But in the “free-range” parenting debate, I’m glad that kids tend to be like their state – maybe a bit too brash and overconfident – but young, feisty, and – unrelentingly independent.