Jennifer O’Connell: Don’t fall into the hysterical parenting trap

Parents being charged with neglect for letting their children walk home alone will only result in arrested development

On paper, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, a climate science consultant and a physicist based in Washington DC, don’t seem the most likely candidates to be facing accusations of child neglect. They insist they are responsible, thoughtful and loving parents.

"There was no neglect here. There was never even a hint of it," Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post, although she has been facing two separate counts of it, the first of which was resolved last week.

However, DC’s child protection services disagreed. It accused the Meitivs of neglect,an accusation that makes even less sense when you know why: they allowed their children, aged 10 and six, to walk home together from a public park, one mile from their home.

The case against the Meitivs was overturned on appeal, but they are still awaiting judgment on a second, similar charge. (The second incident did end badly, but only because the children were picked up by police and held for five hours.)


These cases are just the latest in a slew in the US that, it could be argued, have criminalised the act of taking your eyes off your child for even a second. In south Carolina, a mother was jailed for allowing a nine-year-old to walk to the park. A parent in Ohio is being prosecuted after his son of eight skipped church and went to play.

European countries have so far resisted this rising hysteria over what used to pass for perfectly acceptable parenting. (A recently circulated checklist for parents of children due to enter first grade, circa 1979, suggested that six-year-olds should be able to walk “four to eight blocks” to the shops or school alone.) But for how long?

Every day in Britain, a parent is arrested for leaving a child unattended. Many of these incidents may well involve serious neglect, but they also include a mother who left her 14-year-old babysitting his three- year-old brother while she popped to the shops for 30 minutes.

In Canada, a TV ad campaign warns parents not to leave a child alone in a car “even for a moment”. The ad, which is well-intentioned, makes the point that a child could die within 20 minutes from the heat in a car.

But “even for a moment”? You can’t leave a sleeping child in the car parked in your driveway on a cool day while you bring the groceries inside the house? How are you supposed to fill your car with petrol while holding a baby and supervising a toddler in the forecourt? Or withdraw cash at an ATM?

The fact is that, while a handful of children die tragically of hyperthermia each year when their parents forget they are in the back seat, there are far more incidents in which children come to harm because their parents took them out of the car – knocked down in the carpark, for example.

"This is a wild-eyed view of our species, this idea that without mom's eyes on her kids, they die," journalist Lenore Skenazy writes on her blog, "It's like magical thinking, except tragic. Tragical thinking."

There is a wider issue at stake. With so many children genuinely suffering neglect and abuse, should police and child protection be deployed to investigate parents who make a conscious decision to loosen the parental reins a little? Of course not. As a society we should be commending these parents instead of censuring them.

The greatest risk to today’s children is not from the paedophiles we seem to imagine hiding behind every tree. It’s not from getting hit by a car (although the likelihood of that is increased if they don’t learn how to safely cross a street). It’s none of the eventualities we imagine we’re protecting them from when we keep them locked up at home, playing on their XBoxes.

The greatest risk children face is from us, their well-meaning parents, and our dread of being found wanting in the eyes of “well-meaning” passers-by. Due to a misplaced sense of anxiety surrounding childhood, we are stymying their development, damaging their physical health and refusing to allow them to become responsible, risk-aware adults. Instead, they stay locked in a permanent childhood and become a generation of needy, uncertain kidults.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who works at a high level in a major global corporation in Silicon Valley. “I’ve never met anyone who likes to be micromanaged,” she told me, then paused. “Actually, that’s not true. People who start at my company in their early 20s, they love to be micromanaged. It’s like they are micromanaged by their parents right through school and college, and then they start work and expect the same.

“They’re like very smart, very helpless 23-year-old children.”

Averil Power and the S-word

Averil Power didn’t use the S-word in her resignation statement. But when it emerged that she was “scoffed” at for asking colleagues to canvass for marriage equality, she didn’t have to. Since it’s impossible to imagine that a male politician would be expected to put up with such treatment, then yes, it’s sexism.

Politics everywhere is rife with misogyny. It is allowed to go on because no one wants to speak out about it, for fear of being seen to play the gender card – female politicians least of all.

French journalists broke the silence, in a public letter published last month in Libération newspaper. The letter concluded with a line that could just as easily be applied to Irish political life: "As long as politics is overwhelmingly in the hands of heterosexual men in their 60s, nothing will change.

“In 2015, what we would really have liked is to not have to write this.”