I let Leo and his friend Fin go to Killala’s play park on his own recently. It’s a fantastic new facility with all manner of mod- con, slidey, swingy things, as good as you’d pay good money to keep them happy for an hour.
It was Sunday morning, and the day seemed mild enough and they were harassing me. The two lads are sensible 9 year olds, and know everyone in the village. Leo is at that age where is starting to crave a bit of independence, we send him down to the chip van at the end of the pier on his own once a week, although the convenience factor is diminished slightly by my standing at the front wall craning the two hundred yards to check on his progress there and back. Pete, (my beloved supplier of the best fish and chips in Ireland), knows Leo and keep an eye out for him, and if it’s lashing with rain and there’s a wait, he will send him home and drop our dinner down himself. It’s not much of an adventure really. Leo and Fin go up on outings to the local garage the odd time for sweets, but the play park is a good walk, there’s a couple of roads to cross – and, well, I wasn’t sure. I rang Fin’s Dad for advice and permission and he said, “no problem,” so we compromised. I would drop them down in the car, go and pick my mother in law Renee up from Crossmolina, twenty minutes away, and collect them on the way back. Don’t talk to strangers, get bullied, bully anyone else, go outside the confines of the play area etc.
The park was empty, “Hooray! The place to ourselves!” they shouted and I drove off. On the way up the hill through the village I almost turned back. It didn’t feel right leaving them there on their own. But I trusted them and I had promised. I kept going but by the time I reached the half-way mark to Crossmolina my head was buzzing. What if I went back and they weren’t there? Supposing they were abducted? I would never see my son again – how would I explain myself to Fin’s parents. Perhaps some evil paedophile had seen me leave them there, small, vulnerable, unaccompanied children – and was at this very moment drugging them and putting them into a van to be trafficked. I pulled over to the side of the road, the sweat pouring off me, and rang Niall. “Go and get them,” I said, “I’m having a ‘moment’. At least go and check on them on your way into Tesco’s.”
I felt slightly better for another five minutes but before I reached my mother-in-law's, it started to rain. They’d get wet! Fin has a bad chest this could bring on an asthma attack! Did Leo’s ‘hoodie'; have a hood?
Then I remembered. I spent my whole childhood getting soaked through to the skin in unsuitable clothing. In winter I can clearly remember, at eleven years of age, standing frozen solid in the snow, wearing flimsy shoes and a school blazer, waiting hours for one of three buses to take me home, alone from first year secondary school. From as far back as I could walk, we played out on the street with the other kids, regularly calling into each others houses, and often the houses of lonely adults for a chat and a biscuit. We were told not to talk to strangers, but we didn’t really understand why. And when I acquired a middle aged male stalker – a mysterious man in a grey coat and astrakhan hat who followed me to and from secondary school every day from the age of thirteen to fourteen – I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I certainly couldn’t tell my parents, and, while his presence sort of unnerved me, when he sat next to me on the bus one day, I still chatted politely to him although, I said, I really didn’t think it was a good idea for us to “meet-up” on our own.
Although I was young and vulnerable, I was also capable of keeping myself safe.
We had a play park near our house in London where played, unsupervised every day from as far back as I can remember. The parents didn’t come and sit on benches and read the Sunday Papers and drink Starbucks and make sure we weren’t being abducted. They had got on with their daily lives and came looking for us if we weren’t back in time for tea. Play-parks were for kids.
We now live in a culture where childhood independence is taboo. A father in the U.D recently took his eye off his 5 year old in a play park for two minutes and the child ran into the road and was killed. In addition to the appalling grief and guilt – this man is now serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. He was only as negligent as any parent is from time to time in taking their eyes off a toddler for a few seconds. The tragedy was the kind of appalling freak of fate all parents dread, yet our fear-mongering society is holding him responsible. In actual fact crime in the Western world is actually lower than it was when most of us were growing up. So there is no reality-based reason that children today should be treated as more helpless and vulnerable than we were when we were young. We are so overprotective of our children that an American journalist Lenore Skenazy who was accused of branded as being America’s Worst Mom In The World after allowing her 9 year old boy to ride the New York subway alone. The freedom she allowed him in doing so was not an act of neglect, but a deliberate, carefully considered act of parenting to acknowledge her child’s growing desire for independence, and encourage him to see the world as a safe place to live, as opposed to “the world is a dangerous place” culture depicted by the media seemingly to no other end but to put the fear of God in parents. In reality, Skenazy argues on her excellent website http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/
“Mostly, the world is safe. Mostly, people are good. To emphasize the opposite is to live in the world of tabloid TV. A world filled with worst-case scenarios, not the world we actually live in, which is factually, statistically, and, luckily for us, one of the safest periods for children in the history of the world.”
Skenazy’s parenting ethos makes a lot of sense, based as it is the idea that is a parents job to teach our children how to get along in the world rather than coddle them; “because the coddled child will not have Mom or Dad around all the time. Adults once knew what we have forgotten today. Kids are competent. Kids are capable. Kids deserve freedom, responsibility, and a chance to be part of the world.”