Even those who believe in very limited government powers sometimes struggle with the question of what the state’s role ought to be in protecting children.  We may thiink government has gone too far and become too involved in family matters, and see benefits in civil society playing a much more active role, but we also understand that there are times when government action may be needed.

It’s pretty straightforward that children need protection when there is no parent or close relatively able to care for them.  Children also need protection when their family fails them.

That second category, though, gets tricky.  Children should be protected from abusive parents and parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, rendering them incapable of caring for their children.  I presume that bureaucrats charged with protecting children have a number of criteria for identifying what constitutes true neglect:  from the failure of a child to be properly enrolled and participating in school to poor health outcomes and a record of other problems caused by poor parenting. 

They have to balance competing priorities.  We all want to kids to grow up in a good environment, and we know that there are lots of subpar parents out there.  Yet there are few more dramatic, invasive measures that the government can take in someone’s life than removing their children from their trust. 

One would hope that the officials who have the power to make these decisions would be extremely cautious in exercising this power, especially since we know that once the state takes over custody, those kids cannot be assured that they are going to receive stellar care.  In fact, while obviously there are some fabulous, dedicated fostering families out there, many kids in foster care end up in another neglectful or even abusive situation.

There are many gray areas, and I don’t envy those trusted with making those decisions.  They may recognize how grave a decision it is to remove a child from her parents’ home, but likely also lay awake worrying that some child will end up seriously injured or even dead, when they could have intervened.

Yet some decisions don’t seem gray at all, such as the case in Maryland with a set of parents who believe in giving their kids freedom to walk around the neighborhood on their own.  As has been widely reported, they have been cited by Maryland government officials, had their kids picked up and taken into custody without their parents’ knowledge, and threatened with the loss of their children. 

This is completely crazy, and seems an obvious overreach by government.  One may disagree with the Maryland couples’ decisions and believe that it’s a mistake to give a ten and six-year-old such freedom.  One can think they are bad parents.  But surely this parenting philosophy (which is known as “free-range”) does not cross the line into being so neglectful that it should be illegal and cause for the state to cease people’s kids.

Everyone over a certain age has stories of things that they got to do as a child that you wouldn’t see done today.  Sometimes the new expectations are probably better than they used to be.  I remember sitting on friend’s bike handle bars, riding (helmetless, naturally) around the neighborhood.  I cannot imagine seeing that today, and maybe that’s a good thing as we probably could have really gotten hurt.  And like most Gen-Xers, I was given some latitude to walk around my neighborhood and even into stores when I was a kid.  I don’t know recall exactly what the rules were and how old I was at the time, but I bet that it was in-line with what the Maryland couple is doing today.

I’d need to know a bit more about the specifics of the Maryland families’ situation before I decide if I think they are making the right decision with their kids.  I’d want to know what their neighborhood was like and what type of kids they are – if they are generally responsible or hyper and forgetful.  If the kids are mature and the neighborhood is pretty safe, then I’d think that their approach is just fine. 

In fact, it’s the approach I use and that is used overwhelmingly where I live.  This article in Time on parenting in Berlin, Germany is spot on.  Parents here let their kids go off on their own all the time.  Kids no older than those kids in Maryland take the public transportation system and walk to stores on their own.  

I live with my husband and five kids in a safe, suburban neighborhood.  My 5-year-old son is allowed to walk to 3 different playgrounds in our area, so long as he tells me where he is going first and is with a friend. 

You can think that makes me a bad parent:  I’m too lax and one of my kids is liable to get hurt.  You can think that the Germany parenting model is a bad one.  That’s your right, as it’s my right to think that another parent is smothering their kids by hovering by them at the playground and that they won't be as confident and independent than if you gave them more freedom.  That's a discussion we can have and we can agree to disagree.  But if I was living in Maryland, somebody may be calling the cops on me.  And that’s just crazy.  Americans shouldn’t allow the state to criminalize parenting decisions that are typical in much of the developed world and were standard operating procedure a little more than a generation ago.  America is supposed to be “home of the free” and able to tolerate diversity.  It’s time to make sure that we restore more of the proper balance and make sure that government respects that people may have different ideas about family and parenting, and that in all but the most extreme cases, it shouldn’t be their business.