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October 21, 2003


I saw a link in Bloggerheads to a New Statesman story about the way we treat children. I don't agree with all of this, but much of it hits home.

Marianne will soon be 7. When I was her age, I walked home from school with my friends. Marianne and her chums are not released from the classroom until there's a responsible adult to take charge of them. The first school she attended required that all children were dropped off and collected, up to age 11. In the morning, we walked to school and were left at the school gate; now, nearly every parent waits with their child in the playground until the bell goes and they see their child go in with the teacher. Needless to say, little playing gets done.

We used to go round to friends' houses in the street, and walk to the nearby playground, and to a local gully with a stream, to play for hours unattended. We encourage Marianne to walk letters to the postbox, which is up in the village; it's out of sight of the house but doesn't require her to cross a road. She's just about willing to do that, and actively enjoys running on ahead on our walk to school in the morning. Sometimes she takes the path through the churchyard, leaving her unattended for as much as 100 yards. She wouldn't go alone to even the nearest playground, let alone the nice one with grass that's a few streets away. Even if she did there wouldn't be much point, because the only children who play there without their parents are far older than she is.

She attends an after school club; another of the attendees is the 12-year-old daughter of our neighbour. The walk to this club doesn't involve crossing a road, but nevertheless, our neighbour's girl isn't allowed to walk home alone; we'd be happy for Marianne to walk home in her company but it's not an option.

When I was young, there were a gang of neighbourhood kids who played together. I suspect we caused mayhem. There are plenty of kids around here, but ones the age of my children don't play out together. However, parents like me are rigorous in spotting local events, like the Residents' Association barbecue, the family fun day, the Art Event, or Apple Day. At these gatherings, the parents chatter amiably, trying not to think about all the other things we'd rather be doing, while our children run around in a nice, safe, pack in a garden, playground, or playing field.

We teach Marianne not ever to go anywhere without telling us or the adult responsible; but she hears that she shouldn't talk to strangers from everyone, all the time. The risk of her being abducted by a stranger over the course of her childhood is vanishingly small; the risk of her getting lost, or injured, and requiring the aid of a stranger is much greater.

How paranoid are we? Last year we stayed in a hotel for a couple of days. One morning at breakfast, a fellow guest, a woman in her early 70s, suggested that it might be nice if she took Marianne and Jonathan down to feed the ducks in the duck pond. Of course, we agreed; but such is the atmosphere of our times that parents are now primed to instinctively mistrust even such obviously amiable people.

Marianne has many friendships with adults whose relationship with her is somewhat more than, or different from, just 'a friend of my parents'. I believe it's important for children to develop friendships, with both children and adults, that don't always exist under the watchful eye of their parents.

I saw a cartoon earlier in the year; I can't remember which artist. The punchline was 'We're raising them in captivity'.

Posted by Alison Scott at October 21, 2003 11:25 PM

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It's sad how things change. I remember walking home from school when we lived in Belfast. I couldn't have been more than six at the time.

Posted by: David Stewart at October 22, 2003 11:29 PM

I take that back. I didn't turn six until after we moved to Cork so I couldn't have been more than five at the time.

Posted by: David Stewart at October 22, 2003 11:30 PM

Hmm. The cover story has changed since then, so the link is bad, but I think I get the idea.

I'm saddened that this rather unattractive phenomenon seems just as prevalent in the UK as the US. Independence is a process, a skill, not a point, or a particular age. If children don't get increasing practice at independence over their growing up, how in heck are they supposed to suddenly learn it at 18? This sort of overprotection strikes me at handicapping children in order to act on an innumerate fear. On the other hand, I suppose there are some political entities that might benefit from a population that has been raised to expect and appreciate constant benevolent scrutiny of every moment of their lives...

Posted by: Ulrika O'Brien at November 3, 2003 04:47 PM

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