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