I read a cycle blog a few years ago which argued that there’s a strong link between children’s happiness and their ability to travel independently, such as cycling to school. The top four European nations for children’s wellbeing, according to UNICEF, are all cycling nations, with the Netherlands at the top. British children – often driven to their primary schools – are at the bottom. That observation has haunted me ever since. It’s been my motivation behind giving the Redster a series of ‘independence challenges’, like popping out to a local shop without me. She relishes them, as long as she can take her little sister with her as a security blanket – I’m not sure who’s looking after who. And now she’s about to turn 11 it’s high time it blossomed into getting to school on her own.
So…we have invested in a couple of ‘Zip’ Oyster cards, and at 8.30am (in theory – 8.40am in reality) we walk to the bus stop at the end of our road and I watch my two little girls get on the bus without me. We are into week two now, but I’m still not quite used to it. The other parents pretend not to stare at me as they accompany their own children on board. The doors close in my face, the girls invariably forget to return my pathetic smiles and waves as they find their seats, and the bus pulls off far more abruptly than I feel is strictly necessary.
The Redster’s plan is that I will soon stop accompanying them to the bus stop, and then soon after that they will do the return journey without me too. This is perfectly logical because, unsurprisingly, the return journey is in fact identical to the journey there, except in reverse…There is one road to cross between school and bus stop, which has pedestrian lights and loads of other parents and children crossing at the same time. But it feels like a completely different scenario. What about all the secondary school kids at the bus stop? What about that loud drunk guy? And there’s the fact that the school will frown on the Cutester – who is seven and in Year 3 – travelling back without a parent. Still, I guess the school – and I – will get over it.
It may seem to you that I’m reporting quite an unremarkable decision, and it should be, but I’ve seen the shock on other parents’ faces when I show them the girls’ Oyster cards. One mother looked at me, the cards, and just slowly shook her head. (At least I haven’t quite had the guts to let my children travel abroad on their own like this mother of five.)
Anyway, I guess that mum was joking. The next week I saw her Year 6 son coming out of the tube station near the school clutching his little sister’s hand, with no parent in sight.
What could go wrong, really? I suppose at the back of most parental minds lurks stranger danger. What no one seems to consider is stranger nurture – the reality that most adults instinctively want to protect the children around them. A friend of ours was cycling with his daughter to school when the Year 4 child on the pavement ahead suddenly fell down a manhole. He pulled her out, of course (thankfully apart from grazed shins she was fine) – and the fact is that any passing adult would have done the same. Society is more caring than we give it credit for. My friend was a bit shocked that no parent was with her. But I think her parents had made a sensible risk assessment by letting her walk to school (with a sibling) and begin to exercise some freedom. If they had insisted on taking her just because there may be such a thing as faulty manhole covers, when would she ever get to taste independence?
So this is really – surely – not a radical thing to do, but it makes the girls feel grown up and I hope it makes them more confident. And soon I hope to stop being such a wuss about letting them do it.