It was another tough year for many parents who sincerely thought they were doing their best—until the busybodies said otherwise. Here are the 10 worst free-range kids moments of 2022 (and one encouraging counterexample).
1. We scare because we care: A Halloween infographic from the Consumer Product Safety Committee warned parents to "follow CDC advice" and make sure their trick or treaters wore masks to protect against COVID-19.
But that guidance conflicted with earlier advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released in September. In fact, the CDC no longer recommends universal masking, even in health facilities, where the inhabitants are presumably less healthy than happy kids running around grabbing candy.
2. No exceptions: The daughter of a dying, bed-ridden 79-year-old on the sex offender registry in Shenadoah, Texas, asked for permission to provide her dad's end-of-life care in her home. Unfortunately, a local law prohibits anyone on the registry from living within 1,000 feet of a playground. The daughter lives within that radius, meaning local officials barred her from caring for a dying old man who poses no threat to anyone in the community.
3. Stranger danger, part one: The Lower Merion school district outside of Philadelphia cancelled all six of its elementary schools' parades because "the thought of having an entire school population of young children in a field surrounded by adults that we couldn't possibly screen was worrisome," said the district's community relations director, Amy Buckman. Clearly, kids should only ever encounter (or even be visible to) adults who have been thoroughly vetted. Speaking of which…
4. Stranger danger, part two—this time, it's personal: Last May, as I was walking past my local elementary school in Queens, New York City, I paused to watch the kids at recess. The playground is behind a tall chain link fence. Nonetheless, the playground monitor told me: "You're not allowed to watch the kids."
"I can't stand on a public sidewalk?" I asked.
When stand I did, the monitor called security.
"We can't let anyone watch the kids," said a more senior school official. "It's our job to keep them safe!"
After suggesting that merely watching kids frolic does not automatically endanger them (clearly a minority view these days), I continued my walk home, and the kids continued to play, blissfully unaware of the peril, or lack thereof.
5. Stranger danger, part three—this time, it's federal: The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives $40 million each year in federal funding. This agency—which put the missing kids' pictures on milk cartons back in the 1980s without ever mentioning that most were runaways or involved in divorced parents' custody disputes—launched a sort of mea-culpa campaign in 2017. This time, NCMEC, actually warned parents to avoid stranger-danger rhetoric.
But old habits die hard. This fall, the agency sent an email blast to parents across the country warning that "attempted abductions occur more often when a child is going to or from school or school-related activities." In other words: Kids are in grave danger whenever they're not in a school, a car, or a home. Hopefully, parents don't follow this warning too literally—keeping the kids cooped up all day to guard against the comparatively small risk of kidnapping is not a great tradeoff.
6. Baby snatchers with badges: In July, Josh Sabey and Sarah Perkins of suburban Boston took their sick three-month-old to the hospital. A routine X-ray found a small bruise on his ribcage, which a social worker immediately determined was evidence of abuse. Authorities came to the family's home at 1:00 a.m., seizing the baby and his brother. After a month, and $50,000 in legal fees, the parents regained full custody of their kids.
As for the bruise, it wasn't evidence of anything other than a very common, minor infant injury—most likely caused by grandma when she pulled him out of his car seat.
7. I can't lure that child, he's my son: A Teaneck, New Jersey, Ring camera videotaped a boy being followed by a car. He told its occupants, "I do not accept rides from strangers." They laughed and said, "We have candy!"
Keith Kaplan, a Teaneck councilman who helps run the Teaneck Today website, told one of the site's administrators, "I bet you a dollar it's nothing."
But a piece was published anyway; it went viral, terrifying the town. When local mom Debra Passner saw it, she immediately called the police. That's her son, she told them, "and me and my husband." Their kid was walking home from a party. They offered him a ride, and because he's a smart alec, he pretended his parents were strangers.
On a more hopeful note, just last week, Kaplan got Teaneck to pass a "Reasonable Childhood Independence" ordinance. It states that letting kids have normal independence, like walking and playing outside, should not be classified as neglect.
8. Show and tell… the truth: Dale Farran, a researcher who spent a decade studying over a thousand Tennessee kids who went to a free, state-run pre-kindergarten—and a control group of kids that wanted to, but didn't get in—was shocked to discover that by sixth grade, the preschool kids were doing worse. They scored lower on reading, math, and science. They were more likely to have learning disorders. And they had more disciplinary problems, too.
"It really has required a lot of soul-searching," Farran admitted on NPR.
Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, a leading advocate for more childhood free play, said: "If this study doesn't put the nail in the coffin of academic training to little children, it's hard to imagine what will."
9. Mom handcuffed, jailed for letting 14-year-old daughter babysit:
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia mom Melissa Henderson had to go to work, but her kids' daycare center was shut down. She opted to let her daughter, 14, babysit the four younger siblings. One kid, age four, wandered off to a nearby friend's home and was gone perhaps 15 minutes. The friend's mom called the cops. They charged Henderson with reckless endangerment, because, they said, the boy could have been kidnapped, run over, or "bitten by a venomous snake."
In February, David DeLugas, founder of Parents USA, filed a new motion to dismiss this case. If she loses, Henderson could face up to a year in jail.
10. Another mom handcuffed: Last year around this time, Heather Wallace asked her eight-year-old son Aidan to get out of the car and walk half a mile home since he couldn't stop bothering his brothers. Aidan was a block from his suburban Waco, Texas, home when someone called the cops. Three of them raced over to Wallace's home.
One asked her: "Would you do this again?"
"I said, 'I don't know,'" recalls Wallace. "That's when the cop replied, 'Okay, I'm going to have to arrest you.'"
He proceeded to handcuff her in front of the kids and take her to jail. Wallace could only talk to the press now, a year later, because she successfully completed her parenting class, drug testing, 65 hours of community service, and personal essay of contrition—all part of her guilty plea.
But it's not all bad news: Colorado became the fourth state to pass a "Reasonable Childhood Independence" law.
The bipartisan bill passed unanimously this spring. Now Colorado parents can be investigated for neglect only when they put their kids in serious, obvious, and likely danger—not any time they take their eyes off them. Bill Maher loves this law so much that it was the first thing he talked about with a recent guest, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D).
This coming year, my nonprofit, Let Grow, will be working to pass similar laws in Connecticut, Michigan, Nebraska, and Virginia. Wish us luck! More info here.