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The terrible downside of helicopter parenting

Silhouettes of parents with their children.

Silhouettes of parents with their children. Credit: iStock

The story about a brother and sister, ages 10 and 6, who were stopped by police on their walk home from a park in suburban Maryland raises doubts about how much protection modern-day kids need. The children had permission from their parents to walk the one mile home. But Maryland local police insisted on giving them a ride and obviously perceived the terrain as dangerous.

By the time the 10-year-old got home, he was in tears worrying if his dad would be arrested. Instead, the parents are being investigated by county child services officials for neglect.

My heart goes out to parents Alexander and Danielle Meitiv. They told interviewers that they wanted to give their kids increasing responsibility, step by step. But Child Protective Services is demanding a "safety plan" pledge from the Meitivs, or they risk losing custody of their children.

Since when did our paternal government decide to substitute his judgment for that of parents? The nanny state has spun out of control.

Kids should be pushed as far as they will go, as soon as they are ready. In the aviary, I would be the mom shoving her chicks from the nest. That's how they experience risk-taking, freedom and danger -- all while they're young enough to have their parents around to catch them, give them a hug and advise a brush-yourself-off better set of choices. Soon enough, the kids will be required to fly on their own without us close by.

I would have been a more protective mother if I hadn't married someone who liked jumping out of airplanes. One afternoon when my husband was throwing our younger daughter into the air and catching her, a friend pulled me aside to warn that experts say that tossing kids can cause brain damage -- even if it's all for fun. We had our two daughters swimming as infants, skiing at 3, and taking a flight together to Ohio, without their parents, when they were 11 and 13. They lost their boarding passes during the layover but successfully sought help from an airport security guard. "Face your fears" is a family motto.

Like my overprotective friend, those police officers and social workers in Maryland aren't unusual. They mirror our society's view that childhood is too precious to entrust to children. Our 24-7 news cycle magnifies dangers. Today we are more sensitive to children's psychological well-being -- a wonderful development, up to a point.

But when we constantly remind children to consider the worst-case outcome -- an abduction, a molestation -- we make them fearful and anxious. We say we want them to grow up to be risk-takers, but then don't allow them to experience risk. We want them to be creative and listen to their unique inner voices, without allowing "the small adventures, the secret journeys, the setbacks and mishaps, the glorious anarchy, the moments of solitude and even of boredom" that made up our childhoods, in the words of Carl Honoré, author of the 2009 book "Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting."

Protective anxiety has risen to such a pitch that the Discovery Life Channel last week began a 13-part series called "World's Worst Mom," in which a coach trains parents to learn to let go. The coach is "Free Range Kids" author Lenore Skenazy, who allowed her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone and wrote about it. I wouldn't have gone that far with my kids, but each child is different.

When parents -- not to mention police and child services agents -- are overanxious, they convey to their kids the message, I don't trust you to be competent. Worse, we teach children to doubt themselves -- and we risk raising a nation of people who substitute a paternal government's judgments for their own.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.