Parenting in a Scary World vs. Parenting in a Safe World

On the afternoon of Saturday December 20th, 2014, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their 10-year old son and 6-year old daughter, without adult supervision, walk home together down Georgia Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Silver Springs, Maryland, a town in Washington DC.  (I biked through there often when I lived in DC.  It seemed to me a fairly well-to-do area with a few minor rough spots.)  A neighbor spotted the two little kids alone, called the police, and the police picked them up and drove them home.  When Alexander answered the door he had what he describes as a “tense” exchange with police who demanded ID and “told him about the dangers of the world” (CBS News) expressing disgust at his negligence.

This was not the first such encounter.  Alexander and Danielle are known to leave their children unattended in public places and Montgomery County Child Protective Services (CPS) have confronted them about it.  This included, according to Alexander, taking aside their kids at school for interviews without parental permission “and when they were talking to them, they were painting a picture of a world that is very scary.”  Danielle added that the CPS Officer asked things like, “What would you do if someone grabbed you? The world’s a scary place and there are creeps out there who want to get you.”  After this new incident, CPS threatened to take away their children.

So why has CNN, the LA Times, Fox News, the New York Times, and scores of other news outlets around the country reported this story?  Basically, by all appearances (I’ve read only about six articles on this) these parents are the opposite of negligent.  Alexander is a physicist with the NIH and Danielle is a climate scientist.  They know data, trust data, take parenting very seriously, and ascribe to a growing movement  called “free-range parenting.”  Instead of “helicopter parenting,” which involves constant and chronic parental attention in an effort to keep kids safe, their goal is to empower children through independence, experiencing the world, and learning to navigate it.

The family at the local playground.

The Meitiv family at the local playground.

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” Danielle says. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleep­over? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.”  For instance, her own kids are allowed to walk unaccompanied to specified places such as the local library and park.  “Abductions are extremely rare,” she adds.  Peter Gray, a researcher at Boston College, confirmed to the New York Times, “The actual rate of strangers abducting or molesting children is very small.  It’s more likely to happen at the hands of a relative or family friend. The statistics show no increase in childhood dangers [over recent decades]. If anything, there’s been a decrease.”

The world is actually even safer than when I was a child, and I just want to give them the same freedom and independence that I had — basically an old-fashioned childhood.  I think it’s absolutely critical for their development — to learn responsibility, to experience the world, to gain confidence and competency.   – Danielle Meitiv

And so Danielle and Alexander, while under investigation by the government, have found themselves on talk shows sharing their story.  Across the nation, reaction is mixed.  Many see them as bad parents; others as good parents.  Whatever the response, I suspect that one’s take on the Meitivs and their style of parenting depends largely on one’s primals.

I am a researcher at UPenn who studies primals, or primal world beliefs, which are our most general and simple beliefs about the nature of everything, such as life is beautiful or everything is interconnected.  These unprovable, gut-level, emotionally-laden assumptions are often so implicit we don’t even know we have them.   Together, primals form implicit worlds in which some actions make sense and others just don’t.  Why work hard, for instance, if the world’s not just?  Why be curious if the world is boring?  Why try if nothing ever changes?

To understand one’s response to the Meitivs I ask: Do you feel, at a gut-level, that the world is generally dangerous or safe?  For the group that answers the former, the Meitivs are not only misguided, but immoral, and the government should intervene.  For the group answering the latter, the Meitivs have got it right.

In debate, we can expect these groups to speak past each other.  For instance, my police officer friends have suggested to me that in dealing with the most malignant people in our society day after day, in order to survive and do their jobs well, many police officers, though certainly not all, come to see the world as extremely dangerous.  Many adopt a pervading posture of suspicion and have trouble understanding why others don’t do the same (whether police officers are higher in belief in a dangerous world is a testable hypothesis we hope to have data on soon).  The temptation for those who see the world as safe is to cite stats, noting low abduction rates or how children are more likely to die in car accidents; it may often be safer to let kids walk home than to go pick them up.  But it won’t work.   To someone who holds a primal that the world is dangerous, whose seen it, whose experienced it, this type of evidence falls on deaf ears, and vice versa.  Both sides “just don’t get it,” and even if stats were convincing, stats support both sides.  If there is an objectively correct position, its not clear.

So, as humanity attempts to pass good laws, be good parents, and think about what primals we want to pass on to our kids, we are left with a practical question for psychologists: which primals are most useful?  Unfortunately, we got little to say.  Primals remain understudied by psychologists and many primals have yet to be identified (i.e. the world is beautiful, fun, or declining).  If you would like to change your primals; perhaps you’re a parent who would like to see the world as more safe, a history teacher who would like to share their primal that the world is interesting, or a community organizer who would like to inspire a neighborhood that the world can change; we have no empirically-grounded ideas on how one might do that.

That is the problem the UPenn Primals Initiative is trying to solve.  In addition to looking at societal level primals, we suspect millions of individuals have unwittingly imprisoned themselves in maladaptive implicit worlds where inaction, crime, desperation, depression, anxiety, cruelty, and anti-social behavior of many types, just make sense.  As a scientist, we don’t yet know if this suspicion pans out empirically.  As a person, this is what gets me up in the morning.

In the decades ahead, science can probably never tell us which primals are true, but scientists can begin to understand the power of our answers to the simple age-old question: What sort of world is this anyway?  The UPenn Primals Initiative is one attempt to find out.


CH stars

The most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.   – G. K. Chesterton




Sources for this article include:


About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

8 responses to “Parenting in a Scary World vs. Parenting in a Safe World

  • Whit

    Parenting is a deeply personal endeavor, and I for one am not going to judge one way or the other as to what is or is not appropriate for somebody else’s child. All I know for sure is that if your kid still uses diapers at 4 months you: 1) give zero fucks about the environment, and 2) have never ever truly looked into your child eyes and are practically speaking responsible for autism #mommyfails. I believe in a tidy holistic eastern view when it comes to Parenting Primals; like in Korea, how the protocols of TCM and family honor mandates that a cesarian be conducted in conjunction with seppuku to appease Krishna (the cosmic Gwyneth!) who’s benign spirit keeps raw milk Texas-free, which is so rich in anti-oxidants, raw milk, with so little Texas, it’s like a billion times better then the MMR vaccine which is sadface poop enoji in it’s relationship to Elimination Communication, especially if you’re one of those Nazi mothers who don’t eat their placenta. Placenta- they are not beholden to big pharma. Facts. Facts I robe in camp and pith and bravley post on Pintrest to get ratified by my tribe’s social circles, bolstering my cogent worldview of the universe. Or maybe 89% of what I do, say, and feel is on a gut level discombobulated slop used to signal to my friends and family that I’m crushing it as far life goes, good at sex stuff, and possibly DTF if they are (?); most opinions and ideas have little to do with philosophy or data- it’s vanity distilled by Mr. Insecurity in the pots and beakers of societal norms and mores, while wearing the jersey of good metaphor? Whatever, maybe I’m just an asshole.
    Love ya.

  • bjblipscomb

    It *would* be great to see this on HuffPo, btw.

  • bjblipscomb

    Oh, absolutely, Jer: loads of things can be measured that forward our conversations about usefulness (or adaptiveness, as you put it later). But general and abstract though these terms are, you shouldn’t apologize for them. You were *right* to use them. They are the terms in which personal or policy decisions will ultimately be put–if only implicitly. To decide on an action or policy is precisely to say: this, in the end, is the most useful/beneficial/worthwhile thing to do. And that is where the controversy will reassert itself, and the experiments will no longer tell us what to think.

    You will have demonstrated that people’s blood pressure or life expectancy or civic engagement or reported satisfaction with life are greater if they hold Y primal, rather than its contrary X. Which will be more than we now *know*, and dead useful. But there will be something to be said for X, too (“at least we secure ourselves against unthinkable outcome Z!”), and then people will have to try to assess which balance of gains and losses is, on balance, better. Or they can never bring the issue to action.

    So I find myself in the same place (as we tend to do, when we operate out of primals?): primals are real; it advances the conversation tremendously to make people aware of them; there are lots of things you can measure in terms of their effects; and in the end, arguments about them will remain philosophical–just like arguments directly about safety and independence.

    I think we’re pretty close to one another, though. Because, I take it–at least when it comes to the usefulness of primals–we agree that arguments of this kind are potentially constructive and best conducted with the aid of lots of evidence. I merely want to insist that such arguments are not different in *kind* from the ones people are already having, about safety and independence. Only bringing in primals and their effects on us makes us that much more informed as we argue.

    So excited to see where your work takes you.

    • Jer Clifton

      This is well-said Ben. At the end of the day, the research the primals initiative unearths will be able to inform decisions, but decisions will have to be made, and trade-offs assessed.

      One thing to keep in mind, is that even within a single society, culture, work team, or even family, it may be worthwhile to have different primals (somewhat like its good for teams to have different strengths).

      At the same time, I think we will find that some primals are just generally bad for health and happiness. I suspect the belief that the world is boring may be an example of a primal that almost always has negative effects and “the world is interesting” has positive effects . However, a manically extreme case of “the world is interesting” could be bad as well.

      Thanks for your comments Ben. They are always interesting and insightful.

  • bjblipscomb

    Thanks for the instructive post, Jer. I think about this as we prepare to go to London again next year, and consider to what degree we might give our kids freedom of movement in the city.

    One critical question: why suppose that it will be possible to give a less-controversial answer to the question, “which primals are most useful?” than to the question, “is the world safe or scary?”

    I am also less despairing than you (a primal about primals!) about people being able to talk to, rather than past, one another about the comparative importance of safety and independence.

    Indeed, if my question is on-point, you should be less despairing, too: because the prospects of a constructive conversation about usefulness might rise or fall with the possibility of such a conversation about safety and independence.

    Are primals emotionally-laden and difficult to change? Surely, yes. Are they immune to criticism? I hope not.

    • Jer Clifton

      Ben, good question. I think over the last few years as I’ve grown as a scientist, I’ve grown in my optimism of what can be measured. Of course the question, “what primals are useful?” is too general and abstract. However, we hopefully will be able to say in future years: that in X culture Y primal leads to Z life outcome, etc.

      I agree with you about primals not being immune to criticism. I think they will surprise us by being so malleable. However, primals have to change before a raft of policies can make sense to us.

      Thanks for your comments Ben.

  • Linda Mccormick

    LOVED IT! LOOK FORWARD TO INTERACTING MORE ON when we see you over the 21st weekend.

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