During the long, hot summers of my childhood, which probably had their fair share of rain, I spent a great deal of time playing out. This involved very involved games in our cul-de-sac with the neighbours’ children, or riding our bikes up and down the kerb and even taking a picnic up to the bypass embankment. (I think I may have mentioned this before, it was better than it sounds and was a fantastic place to build dens).
Once I had learnt to tell the time I was allowed even further rein, wandering around our estate knocking on friend’s doors. I walked to Primary school in sole charge of my younger brother. We cannot remember when exactly this started but it was certainly by the last year in Infant school, so Year 2 by today’s reckoning, with my brother a year below. And it was at least a mile away. By nine I was walking home alone as my mother had returned to work.
And all this was the norm. All my friends walked to school alone. We all played out. We all roamed. We all went on epic bike rides. And importantly we all managed the various risks. As children of the 70s bombarded with ‘safety films’, delivered by the TV wheeled into the school hall, we all knew about stranger danger, we all had regular visits from the Green Cross Code man and attended the Tufty Club. I knew to avoid silo pits on farms, that I should not swim in rivers and that I should not play on the railways for fear of my life.
And I knew not to betray my mother’s trust. I knew to be home when I said I would, and to tell her roughly where I might be headed. And I understood the consequences of not doing so, withdrawal of that precious freedom. And yes there were accidents. My brother did cut his head open on numerous occasions. But we survived.
I am trying to replicate this controlled loosening of the reins for my children. Despite the quite marked move away from this in modern society. Where schools are not allowed to release children except to a named adult, where we are almost daily reminded of the threat from paedophiles. However I believe the risks are actually not much greater. Yes traffic is worse but I maintain that in other regards the dangers children face today out in the wide world are roughly the same.
So mine walked home from their piano lessons alone from age seven. They have been walking alone to the local field to kick a ball around for some years. They might be out running round the village. They will bike to Scouts and football, be left home alone for short periods, they will call for friends. They have parameters. Both geographic and time based. They have to look out for each other. They have to wear bike helmets (mu-um). I secretly watch them crossing roads and haul them up if they have forgotten any basic safety procedures. They know which doors to knock on in an emergency. They are not allowed to cook, bathe or eat whilst I am out, yet.
None of them have phones. So I have to rely on them to keep their word, and yes I come down hard when they don’t. If they violate my trust I withdraw their freedoms, temporarily. I am hoping this will set up good habits for the years ahead. Learning to deal with risks and assess the dangers in situations is a vital skill. I don’t want mine to be doing this for the first time when they are reckless teenagers who believe they are invincible. I want them to be doing it now so it becomes second nature.
Many people will believe I am in the wrong. That I am needlessly putting my children in danger, but I am heartened that lots of their local friends are allowed similar freedoms.
When I have no option but to let them out I want to know I have equipped them with as many risk mitigation skills as possible, not to do so, in my opinion, is the most reckless thing of all.