When I was six, I walked to and from school with my 9-year-old brother. When I was eight, we moved and he was at a new school, so I caught the bus instead. Sometimes I spent my bus fare on sweets and walked home, meandering through the local industrial estate, kicking stones and peering through windows.
At weekends, we played on the school fields, shinning up drainpipes onto the school roof. Sometimes we’d clamber over the wall to the neighbouring biscuit factory, seeing what was left in the huge outdoor bins. We rode our bikes everywhere, sometimes to the farms on the outskirts of town, sometimes just to the local park for games of “fox and hounds” or football.
We did some spectacularly dumb things – finding some bricks and trying to build a house, forgetting we’d need mortar – luckily I only lost a thumbnail. My brother once jumped off a roof, shouting “Catch me!” only for me to jump out of the way, and him to end up with a broken leg.
I thought about this yesterday when I read about a survey suggesting that almost half of parents think you shouldn't let kids out with their friends until they're at least fourteen. Fourteen! I'm not entirely surprised – I see parents dropping off their kids at the primary school around the corner from me and feel sorry for the children – I'd have been mortified for my Mum to be taking me to school at the age of 9 or 10.
It’s actually pretty hard for kids these days to have the experience I took for granted when I was young – of not being watched by adults. So many kids are supervised from the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep at night, by parents, teachers, activity group leaders, playground assistants.
Flea’s only four, of course, so it’s early days, but I try to foster her independence. I encourage her to go to the bathroom on her own in restaurants, to use her own changing room at the swimming pool, to play in the park on her own while I sit on a bench near the gate. When we’re out, I play games with her, challenging her to run a little further away from me and touch something before running back – getting her used to the feeling of not always being by my side.
It’s tough for me sometimes, but I think (hope) it’s important for her to start learning to work things out on her own. But there’s still always that little voice in my head telling me I’m potentially neglecting her, not taking enough care.
I know people argue that times have changed – that there’s more traffic on the roads, and fewer other children to watch our children. But I’m not sure that wrapping kids up in cotton wool until they’re in their teens is teaching them anything about how to stay safe. I'd like to think that when I was going on the train to Manchester or Liverpool for shopping trips with my friends when I was 14, I was safer because I'd had those years of experience in taking care of myself a bit closer to home.
What do you reckon? How do you balance the urge to keep your kids locked in an inflatable bubble for their entire childhoods (it can’t just be me who secretly wishes you could do that) and the desire to help them become confident, independent people?