Home // 2015

Chicken and Children


My neighbors caused quite a stir in the news. They allowed their two children (10 and 6) take a 1.2 mile walk along Georgia Avenue (known above the Beltway as Route 97) from a park in the upscale Woodside neighborhood to their home near downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. For doing this, they were investigated by Child Protective Services and found to have engaged in “unsubstantiated child neglect.” My neighbors, the Meitivs, are part of the so-called free-range parenting movement – a movement that focuses on promoting (as appropriate) a child’s independence and self-reliance. As one person said about the name for the movement, “I like my children like my chicken: free-range.” I understand that these children were picked up by police again this evening.

Free-range parenting sees itself as an antidote to the “helicopter parenting” style that seems to predominate today. A world where parents must sign a permission slip to have a child eat an oreo. I have heard stories from college professors that they are now being contacted by parents of their students to inquire about why they received a certain grade on an exam or a paper, and parents signing off on their child’s courses. So the proverbial helicopter now is hovering past the age of majority.

A number of friends have asked me what I think about the Meitivs decision – whether I think CPS should have gotten involved for letting their children walk home. They are often surprised when I say that while I would not have allowed my children, even if typically developing, do what they Meitivs kids did, I have no problem with it. The fact is that we simply can’t live in a world where we get to continually micromanage and judge the parenting decisions of others. While I would like to believe that people who believe CPS was necessary here are doing so out of a genuine feeling of concern, it is easy to see where that kind of “caring,” is, as the Shins say, creepy. Or even worse, interfering can be actually detrimental to the child.

I think friends ask my opinion because they know that parents of special needs children (particularly those with medical needs) have a special appreciation for this problem. While parents of “normal” children are allowed, in relative terms, a wide berth to raise their children, we are not. From the moment our child is born, the “system” micromanages every aspect of our lives — they obviously need to, because we could not even procreate a “normal” child, right?

One area where this sort of interference is most unwelcome is in the area of medical treatment. Nowhere is the denial that reasonable minds can differ about treatment, and sometimes diagnosis, more dangerous and toxic. Two recent examples of that were the arrest of the parents of a boy with rare brain caner who was removed, against medical advice, by his parents from a hospital and taken to Spain to undergo an “experimental” treatment. It just so turns out, that treatment may have saved him. Or a much more dramatic example is the horrible drama that unfolded for Justina Pelletier, a 14 year-old girl removed from her family because she was originally diagnosed with mitochondrial disease and sent to another institution for some adjunct treatment.  Once there, some new doctor developed the opinion that Justina was not really ill – she had a “somataform disorder,” which is a fancy way of saying it was all in her head. The doctors at the new hospital were so persuasive, Justina was removed from her family’s care, and they were not allowed to see her for almost a year until they raised sufficient money to hire a lawyer and fight back.

My husband and I have occasionally been pressured to do certain things or not do certain things for our children, and we have always governed ourselves according to our own convictions. Watching what is happening makes me wonder, though, if the day will come when someone has enough hubris to try and say that they know better than we do how to care for our children. Maybe that day is coming, or maybe it has already arrived and I haven’t really felt any deleterious effects from it, save being judged. What I do know is that “well meaning” people are often the ones who are the most dangerous and it is them I watch most closely, like a helicopter.

All Lives Matter

There are three men on a train. One of them is an economist, one of them is a logician, and one of them is a mathematician. And they have just crossed the border into Scotland and they see a brown cow standing in a field from the window of the train.

The economist says, “Look, the cows in Scotland are brown.”

And the logician says, “No. there are cows in Scotland of which one at least is brown.”

And the mathematician says, “No. there is at least one cow in Scotland, of which one side appears to be brown.”

-Adapted from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Today, I took Ryan to Pump It Up.   For those not acquainted with the concept, it is a giant warehouse full of inflatable bouncy rooms that allow you to jump up and down like a trampoline (but softer), slide, or navigate an obstacle course. It is great fun, especially to people with sensory disorders.

We’re on a first-name basis with the manager at the local place, and today, we were welcomed in our usual way by the staff. We headed to the arena, which is usually empty or nearly so on Wednesday afternoons, as most children are in school at the hour we arrive (our children get out of school early on Wednesdays, because the school system believes that teachers need an extra break from our children. They probably do). Today, however, there were two preschool-aged girls in the arena. Ryan went into his favorite bouncer (and there are several choices available), and one of the little girls followed him inside.  Just as an aside, Ryan does not jump at all in the bouncers. He sits in the corner, against a pillow-like vertical column and rocks, bouncing his back against it.

I usually read or do work, so I was somewhat surprised to hear a voice say, “is he aggressive?”

It took a moment to realize it was someone speaking to me.

“I’m sorry?” I replied, still uncertain.

“I’m just asking if he’s aggressive. You know, yesterday there was a group of ‘different’ kids here,” (and yes, the air quotes were hers), “and one of them was aggressive towards my daughter and I had to complain.”

For one minute, I didn’t know what to say. I was just dumbstruck. Was this really happening?  I formulated a knockout punch.

“No, he’s not usually aggressive toward other children. I am really glad you asked that question though, because it would be terrible for you to assume, solely on the basis of how he looks (because you don’t know him at all), that he would be more likely to be aggressive because of his appearance.”

Now it is her turn to look stunned and to be unsure how to react.

I decide to make it easy for her. “I mean, it would be like me assuming that you are more likely to rob me because your skin is dark, right?” Fuming, I promptly got up and instructed Ryan to follow me to the other end of the arena.

Every day, this prejudice plays itself out in my son’s life. He must be mean, aggressive, or “scary,” as children often say, because he looks different. And adults assume he must be intellectually impaired before he ever says a word (there is actually no connection between most congenital craniofacial disorders and intellectual disability, and the vast majority of people with my son’s condition have no intellectual impairment at all). Even with common genetic disorders like Down Syndrome, which used to entail a life of institutionalization, people are receiving better education and healthcare, and are now writing books, modeling, acting and enjoying the right to marry and have families (sound familiar?).

The irony here, of course, that members of racial and ethnic minorities have their own inherent biases, sometimes against their own racial or ethnic group.  If you want to hear a discussion on inherent bias, I highly recommend you listen to “Cops See it Differently” on NPR’s This American Life.

Discrimination against disability is one of the last acceptable “isms” in our society.

Recently, I saw “Black Lives Matter” spray-painted on an overpass on an I-95. Someone struck through “Black” and replaced it with “All.”  Of course all lives matter.  That completely misses the point of the movement.  As a society, we don’t react that way though, do we?

Ruthless Preemption

In the past several years, I’ve traveled on area roads from several different perspectives. I’ve traveled as a motorist. I’ve also traveled in an ambulance as a first responder. And more recently, I have been on the roads as a cyclist. Many will nod their heads in agreement when I say that the way people many drive in this area is simply appalling.

In Fire/Rescue, our portable radios are equipped with an “emergency” button. This bright orange button allows us to depress it and to command the attention of dispatch and every other radio user on the air in the County. Obviously, it is intended to be depressed only in scenarios involving an immediate threat to life. Once depressed, if there is no response or a distressed response to the dispatcher, a massive police response ensues.

And once depressed, all other radio traffic on the air is inhibited until the “emergency” is cleared from the radio – a feature known as “ruthless preemption.” Depressing the “EB” button, as we call it, is a way of saying that what is happening to the user is so important, all other communication should stop until the dispatcher deems the situation is to be managed.

Many people (too many) in this area drive with ruthless preemption.

When I was in EMT training at the Academy, one of our instructors, a long-time paramedic in Montgomery County, was teaching a unit on responding to what we call “PICs,” (what the rest of the world calls “car crashes”). He set up a scenario for us – someone blows through a four-way stop, and T-bones another car on the driver side as it proceeds into the intersection. It is rush hour, and the driver of the T-boned vehicle is pinned and has serious injuries. The sky is clear and the wind is low, so you request a helicopter be dispatched to the scene. You begin clearing the intersection according to protocol for the incoming chopper.

“Then,” he paused, “because we need this to depict such a scene in Montgomery County,” he recruited several volunteers to act as the responders and he assumed the role of a bystander in his car on the scene. “EXCUSE ME!,” he shouted, “How long is this going to be?” He tapped his foot. “I am late for work and I am VERY important!” Everyone chuckled, and then, blushed: it is true, and it is pretty embarrassing if you live here. This is what first responders really think about us.

I learned the hard way that this is not hyperbole when I started running calls myself. One incident sticks out in my mind in particular — a night when it was pouring — the rain was coming down so hard you could barely see more than a few feet in front of you — we were called to the inevitable Beltway PIC. The engine blocked the scene properly to keep traffic away from where the involved vehicles were in the left lane, and the EMT who was our driver staged our ambulance properly. I looked out of the window of the cab for an opportunity to get out, and despite doing everything “right,” I was almost clipped by a driver who passed the engine and got into the third lane before passing the accident scene (this is a violation of traffic law, of course) and gunned it. I was passed whisper close by a vehicle doing about 45 mph in a torrential downpour, wearing a traffic vest and high visibility gear.

Who could suck all of the oxygen out of the air and engage in such ruthless preemption? I never saw that driver’s face, but I did see the face of a driver who cut off my husband and me while we were riding our bikes one day. We were taking the lane, riding abreast, and he passed too close and cut right in front of us. Neil decided to engage him, and he pulled up alongside him at the next traffic light. The driver rolled down his window and said, “There’s no bike lane here! Get off the road!” About 100 feet in front of us was one of the “share the road” signs that instructs drivers that cyclists are authorized, by law, to take the lane.

If you see people driving in an unsafe manner, whether around first responders, cyclists, pedestrians or other motorists, I encourage you to let them know – calmly. A few months ago a guy passed unsafely while I was riding my bike on Beach Drive. At first, I was enraged, and I chased him to the light. I made the “roll your window down” gesture, and he did. Fortunately, the rage left me and I said to him, quite calmly, “I see you have Virginia plates. In Maryland, the law is you are to pass cyclists at a distance of at least three feet. You passed me with two feet at most, and it was completely unsafe.” He blinked for a moment, and then apologized. “I had no idea I was that close to you. I’m really sorry.”

Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent someone else from engaging in ruthless preemption with deadly consequences.

She Became

“If you are loved by someone, you are never rejected, so decide what to be, and go be it.” – Avett Brothers

I belong to a support group for women coping with the loss of their mothers.  Although we meet in person, we occasionally email each other about interesting things we see.  One member circulated this bumper sticker she saw on a parked car, and it generated a lot of discussion among the group members:


For over a year, I have been trying to find meaning in a number of things that have happened. Sometimes I worry that I have tried too hard to find meaning in these things. Maybe there is no meaning – they were just a bunch of random things that made for a terrible eighteen months. Then I realize that there really is no way to overstate them: the events had real meaning to me and I ignore them at peril to my own growth as a person.

So, how can I properly grow from these things? How can “I become?”

I am not sure I know the answer to that question, but I do know that I am making changes in my life that I would have been afraid to make before. Taking risks has always been hard for me: I have always played it safe, and done what I think others expected me to do. I have noticed that a lot of people have started to steer away from me now, because I am not “who they thought I was.” The fact is, however, that I am really still the same person. My dreams and desires are now simply closer to the surface, and I may be less willing to mince words or waste time. It has truly been eye-opening to live this way. I could not imagine going back to the way things were before.

Did I become, then, or have I always been?