Letting Go

Flea

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?

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

36 Comments

  1. 17th May 2010 / 12:12 pm

    I feel the same way that you do and want my son to be able to walk himself to school, to be able to walk or bike to the playground to meet friends, etc… just as I was able to do as a child. He’s only two, so we’ve got a few years before it’ll happen though!
    Have you ever read the free range kids blog?
    http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/

  2. Nikki
    17th May 2010 / 12:54 pm

    I was never allowed to walk to or from school as it was a good couple of miles away but it never bothered me. I’d get picked up or dropped off far enough from the gates LOL. For my two I suspect I’ll be more flexible since we live right by the infant and junior school and my parents live near the senior school so I expect I’ll drop them off there and they can walk in from there.
    Letting go is one of those things you have to try to balance carefully IMHO. I’d rather encourage my two to join clubs – for example Jenni’s down for rainbows and brownies and Matthew’s down for beavers, cubs and scouts where their independence is fostered in a relaxed but cared for environment. In terms of them venturing out, it’s something I’m not going to think of until nearer the time – who knows whether they’ll be sensible/trustworthy/street-wise until that point. So I’m gonna re-think at that age.
    Problem solved LOL – she says sticking head in sand.
    Nikki

  3. 17th May 2010 / 1:43 pm

    do think things have changed since I was small, and I think there are advantages and disadvantages to that. I remember my walk to school, as an only child, being a VERY lonely one – I’d hate for my children to feel as isolated as I did, plodding up the road when mum had gone to work. I do agree though, that too much cotton wool is a bad thing – I heard something recently about teenagers at secondary school having proportionately more road accidents, possibly because they’d never really had to cross roads alone before.
    I know ‘read my blog’ is a bit of a cheeky thing to say, but I blogged about this just a couple of weeks ago from the point of view of having a disabled child.
    http://thecoffeelady.blogspot.com/2010/04/call-for-bad-behaviour.html

  4. 17th May 2010 / 2:11 pm

    I roamed around like something feral when I was 4 but there were so many of us the older ones looking out for the younger ones. Now we are all so seperate and families are all over the place. Children have so many things to do and not time to be…

  5. 17th May 2010 / 5:00 pm

    I have mixed feelings on this. I too walked to school from a very early age, but them my mum was the loolypop lady and there was only one road to cross.
    I am allowing the mini mads a little freedom this summer, they are allowed outside the front of the house, but they have strict limits and I know that all the other parents keep their eyes open. I think this deserves a post of its own, as I will just go on and on!

  6. Susie
    17th May 2010 / 5:05 pm

    I know that a big anti accident campaign here is constantly saying that kids until age 9 should not cross the streets on their own. Don’t remember the whole reason for it, but seems it was proven that their field of vision or something is not completely developed enough till that age.

  7. 17th May 2010 / 7:57 pm

    This is an ongoing debate in our house with our son who is 10. He’s increasingly wanting more freedom – as is normal – and would love to walk to school by himself but there are quite a few busy roads to cross and navigate. He ahsn’t proved to me yet that he has much roadsense, despite us drumming it into him. We are giving him more and more small freedoms. He went to a 24 hour party (I know) this weekend and I spent the weekend in a high state of anxiety – although I trust the parents implicitly, I still was imagining car wrecks, drownings and stuff because I wasn’t there to oversee. But it was a good lesson for me. And he had a great time.

  8. 17th May 2010 / 8:00 pm

    I have to say that this is something that I really struggle with and have blogged about this very recently myself. My eldest two are 12 and 10 and at an age now where they are pushing for more and more freedom – my 12yo so even more so since he started high school in September.
    But I am just not ready to let go of the very tight hold I have on their reins for now.. Your little one is still so very young and I didn’t realise just how hard it would be to ‘let go’ but now the time has come I’m finding it sooooo hard!

  9. 17th May 2010 / 8:15 pm

    We grew up like that too, our house was next to a building site and we used to “play out” all the time, including making dens and starting fires! This was from the age of 8-12. All the kids on our road played out together. We also used to go on bike rides all around where we lived and be out for hours at a time (no mobile phones in those days either)
    I worry mainly about traffic danger, judging the speed of traffic is one of the last things kids can do well, I am sure I read it was about 15!! I am far more concerned about that than “stranger danger” although I do have rules about the kids using public toilets – they MUST tell me first before they go off there if we are all at the park. I have found that the more kids I have had ( I have 3)the more relaxed I have become about close supervision. I was far more anxious with my son at age 3 than I am with my daughter who is 3 now and consequently she is far more independant than he was at that age. She can dress herself completely including socks, rarely needs help with the toilet and is completely self sufficent with eating etc.
    My son has a year till he starts high school and I am trying to encourage more and more independance in readiness. I let him to run small errands to our shop, meet me at our local cafe from his swimming lesson and those sorts of things. We live too far away from school for him to go on his own but when we move closer I am hoping he can start to go by himself.
    It is hard to judge, but I think the media do play a part in making parents more fearful these days. Although the world has changed since we were kids. This is one of the reasons we like to take out kids camping as they can have more freedom.
    (sorry for the essay!)

  10. 18th May 2010 / 9:14 am

    Yes, I know it’s very early days with Flea and I’m not about to turn her loose on the streets, I’m just thinking about when she’s older and wondering what other parents do/don’t do. And thanks for the blog recommendation, I haven’t seen it before so I’ll take a look.

  11. 18th May 2010 / 9:15 am

    Ah, the old “drop me off round the corner and I’ll pretend I don’t know you” ruse, eh?
    I’m a big fan of cub scouts – my Dad was a scout leader and we all went through that movement, and I was a Beaver leader in my 20s. Flea will definitely be signed up for either that or an equivalent – I think the camping trips give them a real safe taste of independence, definitely.

  12. 18th May 2010 / 9:16 am

    Oh, poor you! I loved walking to school, but I’ve always been quite happy with my own company. I used to talk to myself, sing to myself, make up funny voices, imagine stories – I like to tell myself this means I was creative but maybe I was just weird!
    I will definitely read your blog – thanks!

  13. 18th May 2010 / 9:17 am

    I think you raise a good point – I wouldn’t worry about stranger danger nearly so much as I worry about the fact that NOBODY lets their kids out – so there are no other kids to watch over the younger kids. I think in that respect so much depends on the sort of community you live in, and whether there are other people around, or other adults you feel would step in if something was going on.

  14. 18th May 2010 / 9:18 am

    Yes, when I was six and walking with my 9 year old there were only two roads to cross – one of which was our own, the other was patrolled. I think you’re right it’s about appropriate limits, too – I certainly remember having a boundary that gradually extended as I was older – from being allowed halfway up the street to the end of the street, to the park and so on.

  15. 18th May 2010 / 9:21 am

    There’s a school of thought that children aren’t able to accurately judge the speed of cars until the age of 7 or 8. But if you teach children to not even try and judge the speed of cars and only to cross where there’s a designated crossing – or to never take chances and cross if they think they have to run – I think it’s less of an issue.
    For me it’s all about calculated risk. If you arm children with information and the ability to practice their skills I can’t help thinking they’re safer than someone who never has the chance to try those skills until they’re in secondary school.
    I guess like so many things our parenting is informed by our own childhood and I think it’s such a loss if Flea doesn’t get some of the freedom I enjoyed.

  16. 18th May 2010 / 9:21 am

    Oh, it’s hard, I bet! But great that he had a good time. And you’re right to be nervous about busy roads, I would be too.

  17. 18th May 2010 / 9:23 am

    I have to say that at 12, I was allowed to go into town by bus on a Saturday morning with my friends for coffee and cake, then a trip to the record shop. We knew to stick together, and we had a lot of fun. It’s only now perhaps I start to understand that it might have been hard for my Mum – but I guess in the 80s that was considered pretty normal.

  18. 18th May 2010 / 9:58 am

    I have such a problem with this – I let my five year old play in the park where I can’t see him, and go to the shops when there are no roads to cross etc – with a definite intention of extending his independence step by step. I often think of all the things that could go wrong, though, and how horrible that would be. Still – I find it important enough to take some risks so I agree with you.

  19. 18th May 2010 / 11:14 pm

    I would like to be like you, and think that I am in my thinking whether I will practice it is another thing. Baba is only 19months so we have a long way to go yet. But we don’t always hold his hand, and he walks from the car on the road to the house on his own, he may be beside us. If we are parked directly outside he just wonders to the door and I think that that is good for him. I walked to school, Mr L walked to school and I hope that Baba will be able to do the same. I do think that is good for them as well. I agree you need those skills for when you are older!

  20. Nikki
    19th May 2010 / 9:42 am

    Recommend you look into it ASAP Sally. Jenni’s been on the rainbows waiting list for 2 yrs now to make sure she could get in aged 5. The waiting list for scouting is even longer and Matthew’s been down for that since age 2- they don’t start till 6!!
    Crazy….
    Oh and Sally- remember a while back you talked about positive female role models for Flea, well I thoroughly recommend the Happy Family reading books – I read them when I was little and they’re all available in the library – some great female characters in there (Mrs Cliff the climber for example) – also, in terms of films, my two have started watching the Star Wars films – I know, I know – too young, but they love the alien like characters and Princess Lea is pretty foxy!

  21. Nikki
    19th May 2010 / 9:45 am

    MWA – Let your 5 year old go to the shops????????? WHAT!!! I’m hoping you’ll say its next door to your house….

  22. 19th May 2010 / 3:43 pm

    Last night I watched a crappy show on TV about spain and A&E and I was amazed at the amount of young people on holidays on their own, with friends, with boy/girl friends like 17 years old. I was surprised. maybe due to the controlled environment i grew up in. As I child I was free to go where I wanted outside the house CRAZY.
    I can’t believe Flea goes to the bathroom on her own when out – wow Eliza wouldn’t go at all, she’s independent in a different way like playing rarely wants me to play with her loves being on her own with her books!
    I am terrified of her being snatched, I was nearly snatched when I was 7 in my little town. I am just so scared I don’t like her going to far either!

  23. 19th May 2010 / 9:34 pm

    Where I live it’s pretty suburban and you can only get from one place to the next by car. Couple that with the heat and humidity of Florida and it;s easy for me to keep mine locked in a bubble. I imagine it would be different if we were back in the UK or lived in a more walkable American town. Athough, I did drop my 13 year old at the movies at the movies on his own for the first time ever. He and about 10 of his mates were seeing Iron Man 2. *sobs* I’m still getting over that milestone.

  24. 20th May 2010 / 2:54 am

    This is a tough one – we had a fair bit of freedom as children but I am one of five and we always had friends over so there were always tons of children sort of looking after each other.
    One of the great things – in my opinion is that my sons go to school in the middle of London – no seriously ! They hop on the school bus for swimming and games – obviously always with their teachers ! Also they walk to various sports activities and to Assembly. The teachers do the road safety drill just as we do and I have noticed my 8 year old is becoming more switched on. They also have a terrific sense of direction and their local knowledge is second to none ! I suppose what I am saying is that I can see their developing awareness but I don’t have to go through it myself ! I still get spooked when I see children who are probably 12ish but small for their age walking along by themselves though !

  25. 20th May 2010 / 12:16 pm

    Thanks Nikki. I have scouting connections, so I think we’ll be okay if Flea decides to join, although I’m reasonably confident it will be beavers then cubs, rather than Rainbows! I’ll check out those books, too, thanks!

  26. 20th May 2010 / 12:18 pm

    Don’t worry, we like essays!
    I’m similar in that I worry way more about traffic than stranger danger. I think, at the end of the day, the risk of abduction is so miniscule compared to the risks of not equipping kids with life skills, that I don’t worry about it beyond, like you, teaching basic safety rules.

  27. 20th May 2010 / 12:19 pm

    I’m similar in that of course when I send Flea off to the bathroom I think, “What if someone grabbed her and ran out of the fire exit?” I’m human, after all. But I guess I think it’s more important that she gradually learns how to operate independently, and I don’t want her to grow up surrounded by a sense of fear of the world.

  28. 20th May 2010 / 12:20 pm

    Yes, walking to school is so good for kids, and I’m sad it’s not an option for Flea right now.

  29. 20th May 2010 / 12:21 pm

    She says there are no roads to cross so I imagine it’s on the same street.

  30. 20th May 2010 / 12:23 pm

    I think it’s about different parenting choices, ultimately.
    I was allowed out on my own or with my brothers from about 5 or 6, and as I got older the distance I was allowed to travel from home increased. By 12 or 13 I could go into town with friends on the weekends, by 14 or 15, I could go to the nearest city and shop there. By 16, we went on camping weekends with friends and at 17 I was going to festivals, and at 18 I worked abroad for the whole summer. It was just a gradual progression, I think, which seems natural and sensible to me now.
    Flea is independent in her play, definitely, but she is cautious and so part of what I’m trying to do, I think, is give her confidence that it IS okay not to always be holding my hand – I don’t want to pass on my irrational fears to her and limit her experiences, if you see what I mean?

  31. 20th May 2010 / 12:25 pm

    I know what you mean about American neighbourhoods – it’s one of the key reasons I resisted moving over there – I knew so many teenagers who had no knowledge of the world beyond their block, the local strip mall (which they drove to) and school (which they drove to). It’s totally different from the UK, and it must be harder for you.
    Ah, I bet your son had a brilliant time, while you sobbed in the car 😉

  32. 20th May 2010 / 12:27 pm

    I agree that gang sort of situation would be lovely for parents – I was one of four and we had neighbourhood friends so we would often be playing out with 10 or more of us, all together. I’m not sure that happens so much, now. But I almost wish more parents would get together and say, “I’ll let mine out after school and they can play with yours” – because often it’s the fear of kids being on their own that puts people off, I think.

  33. 20th May 2010 / 12:46 pm

    I have mixed feelings about this, my eldest is seven and she is so independent. She has a few friends who live in the street that backs on to ours and a few weeks ago for the first time, I let her play in their street with them. I hated it because I couldn’t see her but I think it’s really important to give her freedom – If she knew how nervous I was, she’d be nervous herself and I really don’t want that to happen!
    It is a differnt world to when we grew up but if I want her to grow up happy and independent, I need to give her more freedom than I would like I guess.

  34. Nikki
    21st May 2010 / 1:18 pm

    would hope so, but still….very brave or….!!

  35. Nikki
    21st May 2010 / 1:21 pm

    LOL can girls go to beavers? Thought it was just scouts? How times change eh!
    Just picked up 4 new happy familities books from the library – Mrs Plug the Plumber, Mrs Vole the Vet and others. Brilliant role models 🙂

  36. Letting
    26th May 2010 / 9:00 am

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed reading your blog and found it best one.

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