Sunday, 4 July 2010

Free the children

I feel sorry for the children of today. It sometimes seems as if they have so much more than the previous generations, but the sad truth is, they don't have it easier at all. Having cellphones, email and fancy toys might be one thing, but what they are missing out on is the freedom to be children.
I was reminded about this issue today while reading the Sunday Times, where I learned that two children, aged eight and five, cycle to school every day on their own. Because of this, their school is threatening to report their parents to social services.

Social services? You have GOT to be kidding me!

This 1-mile commute to school may have become a source of consternation to the school and other parents, but it has also become a unwitting protest for the few freedoms children are given. Ignorance and intolerance from adults seems to be at an all-time high.

Case in point, a quote from the headmaster of the school:
"If a school feels a child in their care is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to notify the local authority. Is an eight-year old responsible enough to come to school with a five year old and take responsibility when it comes to crossing busy roads? What would happen if the five year-old has a tantrum?"

This is a frustratingly narrow-minded attitude. If a child of eight is not given the opportunity to act responsibly, then they will never learn to be responsible. To mature and develop a child needs the freedom to grow. The same goes for a child of five; and why would a child throw a tantrum while they were cycling? If they did, how is this a threat to themself or their older sibling? Kids are pretty good at dealing with their younger siblings when they need to be. It is a shame that this headmaster undermines the potential of the children in his care.

However, more crucially, this is another example of ways in which families are being damanged by the bureaucracies supposedly set up to protect them. Misguided interpretation of laws can only lead to misguided reactions. The Department for Children, Schools and Families allows schools to play the social services card at the slightest whiff of risk, even if it prevent parents from raising their children the way they feel is best. Why does a headmaster get to decide what is best, over a child's own parents?

After all, we're not talking about child neglect, or child abuse, or lack of parenting altogether. This is about a normal happy family, and the quest for a decent, healthy childhood. It's a bike ride to school, one mile, where they pass by busy roads but cross only where a lollipop lady is on duty. Why social services need to get involved (when there are plenty of children out there who really ARE in danger, and nothing is being done about it - but I digress) is beyond me.

The mother of these two children, Gillian Schonrock, says: 
"The benefits to our children far outweigh the potential risk from 'stranger danger', road traffic accidents and other factors."

Their father adds, "We wanted to recreate the simple freedom of our childhood. We would love it if our kids could just pop around the corner to see their friends, but that's totally out these days. These days children live such regimented lives. They can do nothing unless it's planned."

I completely agree with these parents. And this makes me suspect the headmaster is laying down the law to appease other worried parents, who cannot fathom a child going out in their own. The fear of some is forced to become the concern of all, and this is what drives the greatest threat to us all - 'the Nanny State'.

It's unfair to wrap children up in cotton wool. It offers no benefit to the child - in fact, trying to avoid any possible risks does more harm than good.
Taken from the article again:
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said he had been contacted by dozens of parents in a similar situation. He believes the state is steadily encroaching and that excessive protection of children harms their development: "The irony is that the measures these parents took actually protect the children by developing resilience and resourcefulness through facing challenging situations."

I cannot imagine the physical, burning need a parent has to protect their child. But going overboard to protect them from one thing (paedophiles, dangerous drivers) can automatically cause new, and less obvious dangers (lack of confidence, distrust in other people, emotional neediness, and inevitable rebelliousness).
I personally think the latter should be more of a concern than perverts and kidnappers. For as long as a child grows up with a fear of danger and a suspicion of others, then they will never truly develop into someone open to relationships and prepared for what life throws at them. And this is damaging.

The key to a child's development is not in trying to keep them away from risks, but through giving them the opportunities to overcome them.

I feel very strongly about this, because I was lucky enough to be given the very freedom the Schonrocks are trying to give their children. And I have never doubted this gave me the strength and the confidence I needed to be who I am now.

My own childhood was full of freedom.... and yes, even some risk-taking. My parents trusted me to be responsible and I did my best to withhold that trust. In fact, my younger brother and I were the same ages as the Schonrock kids when we used to cycle to school by ourselves.
If my parents were worried about this, they did not project those fears onto me. We were educated about stranger danger and road safety, but once equipped with those lessons we were set free to enjoy ourselves. Of course I could have been hit by a car, or followed by a strange man in a mac, but the fact is I wasn't. And if I had been?
Well, what if I had choked on my dinner one night and died?
How far does one go to protect from the "what if"s?

Nobody can deny that the times have changed. Yet I think the only marked difference between a childhood today and a childhood 20 years ago is that parents have become more afraid. They are more suspicious. More likely to take their children under their wings and not let them out to fly. The Schonrocks seem to be in a minority of parents who are not letting their worries overcome their children's need for independence. It's very easy to believe that these days there are more bad people, more violent encounters, more bad drivers. But these things have always been there. What has changed is the level of our mistrust, and the extremity of our precautions.

Perhaps my views stem from living in a different place, rather than a different time.
I grew up in New Zealand, where paranoia was not so abundant. When I was eight years old my biggest fear wasn't drunk drivers or paedophiles. I was more scared of earthquakes, tsunamis (and big spiders). At school we would practice earthquake drills and told time and time again that "The Big One" was years overdue. Our teachers told us to stock up on canned food and bottles of water in case of emergency.
As far as I was aware, ANY MINUTE NOW the entire country could be shaken to its core and everyone's homes destroyed. THIS was my biggest fear, and given that it was out of my control, I learned that I just had to get on with life. Take precautions, but don't stop living. As a child that's an incredibly liberating lesson to learn. If only more adults would realise that too.

You cannot control the things you are afraid of, and letting them prevent you - or your children - from living life is, in fact, the greatest danger of all.

Me, age 8, and my brother, age 6, cycling to school in 1990:

* [original article from the Sunday Times by Kevin Dowling] 


  1. Just commenting to prove I've read it! I used to walk to school on my own every single day and would let my hypothetical children do the same.

  2. I dunno. I think a lot of what you say has merit, but five is flippin' young to be cycling without an adult, especially for a full mile. And eight is young to have the responsibility of a life on your hands.

  3. This is an unfortunate result of the world we now live in. Protectionism to unnecessary levels in all aspects of life. It unfortunately would not be safe for these kids and the school cannot be seen as 'letting this happen on their watch'. A world where this is not the case would be fabulous but these times are gone.

  4. @Ian Thanks for your comment!
    But do you really think that it wouldn't be safe for these kids? Or is it just us projecting our fears onto what is a situation no riskier than taking them swimming or playing in the park? I also don't quite understand how a parent cycling with them could stop them being hit by a car. If you teach your kids to be safe on the roads, then the biggest threat is a bad (adult!) driver who may hit them. And no adult cycling with them could stop that.

    I think this is a typical case of a worried society looking to eradicate any situation they cannot control because it makes them feel safer. However, we've become so confused, in thinking that being seen to be safe is actually protecting us. It's not. (For example, this is what the airlines do - see here).

  5. 'I think this is a typical case of a worried society looking to eradicate any situation they cannot control because it makes them feel safer' - precisely

  6. Haven't read the piece about the airlines yet but I flew out of Bristol yesterday with, among other things, a guitar case. Before I reached the check-in desk I was asked if I was carrying anything that "looked like or could be used as a weapon". I attempted to reply, with as little irony as possible, that the guitar case might look like a weapon. That was not well received. I was then asked if I had any spare strings in the case. "I'm sorry, sir. We'll have to confiscate those. They could be used as a weapon." My curiosity was piqued. "You could garrote somebody with one of those". Just what I had in mind for a nice, quiet trip across the pond to the land of the free on 4th July.

    I despair.

  7. It is hard to comment on this without knowing the area they live in, what the roads are like, but I do agree that it is over-zealous of the headteacher to be threatening referral to social services. I live on a very busy road, but I would allow my 9 yo to cycle to school by himself. Not sure about my 7 yo though, and I certainly wouldn't expect either of them to take responsibility for their almost 5 yo sister. However, if I lived in a quiet village, or a more residential area with quieter roads I might feel different. But, what's important about this is that as their parent its my right to choose, and thats the point with this article for me - these parents aren't just some slack, uncaring parents who don't even know how their kids get to school (and there are plenty of them out there, trust me, I've worked with them) but have instead made a conscious choice to allow their children a degree of freedom and have ensured they are competent to get to school alone. As Headteacher of the school, this man should know his families well enough to realise this family don't need social services interfering.

  8. From the age of 7 years old I used to walk to school along the main road with my 5 year old brother at my side. We were fine.

    We were taught about stranger danger and how to cross a road. Accidents do happen but on the whole being allowed that freedom has let me grow up into an independent, aware woman. What will happen to this generation on cotton-wool wrapped children?

  9. I am sad to say that I wouldn't let my five year old be accompanied by my eight year old - I would let my eight year old on their own. I am a bit too over-cautious, but a product of todays world. In our town, two mature adult ladies have been killed within two weeks on our town centre roads, so around here I wouldn't allow it.

  10. @Emma - thanks for your honest views on this. Personally I think that yes, there is a risk to cycling, but then, there is a risk in doing almost anything, and a parent cycling with their children could not stop them being hit by a car.
    However, you have every right to make that choice for your children. The important point here is that every parent is entitled to make their own choices, without having those who disagree with them call in the law. x

  11. Interesting blog, but I agree that it all depends where this is taking place. If it's London or anywhere remotely busy, 5 is way too young to be biking (or walking) to school unless they are accompanied by an adult. I am not sure if social services should be involved, but if the headmaster of the school had concerns, brought them to the attention of the parents and they were ignored, then he may have a legal responsibility to bring those concerns up to the social services as he/she is responsible for the safety of the children once they are near the school.
    I guess you'd have to actually meet the parents in this situation to make a full judgment, but I am sure there are many cases where the headmaster may be more responsible than the parents. That being said, I do agree that the parents have the right to raise their children the way they want, even if it is not the safest or responsible option.
    If it's a small country town, then this is probably way over the top and let the kids bike.

    I'm sure though if the 5 year old gets killed on the bike going to school the article in the Metro will read, "social services fail children again" I read once a week.