This blog post is about experimenting with childhood freedom – and how not to do it with other people’s kids.
I was chatting to another mum in the playground last Friday (I still pick the kids up from school, a habit I can’t seem to break) and she started telling me about her own childhood in the 70s.
‘We played out on the street for hours,’ she said. ‘The rule was you had to be in before dark. I used to argue with my dad about what ‘dark’ meant and sometimes we didn’t come home until half past nine.’ This was when she was still in primary school.
She went on to say that although they weren’t really supposed to go too far from the house or do anything risky, sometimes they climbed over a six-foot brick wall to get into the local recreation ground rather than walk ten minutes to the entrance – and sometimes they hopped onto a bus to the centre of town. Or the centre of Epping Forest.
‘Where did you live?’ I asked, picturing a village in Essex.
‘Wood Green,’ she said.
(Which, from our suburban outlook, is like ‘the inner city’.)
I came to that conversation having just read an interview in Psychology Today which made the point that a) children given independence to roam unsupervised are more likely to be confident and self-assured, and b) parents who give their children independence to roam unsupervised are more likely to be arrested. The interview was with a couple called Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Maryland, USA, whose children were taken into police custody for several hours and then nearly taken into care because they were allowed to walk to a park about a mile from their home without an adult. The Metivs are holding their ground and refusing to change their parenting practices.
I’ve also been inspired by the ‘free range kids’ philosophy, as expounded by Leonore Skanazy, which is all about ‘letting kids be kids’ and ‘fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.’ She instituted something called the ‘Take our Children to the Park…And Let them Walk Home by Themselves Day‘ for children aged 7/8 and up. It sounds so risky and revolutionary and irresponsible! but when we were kids, weren’t we all running around unsupervised outdoors? That mum I spoke to in the playground certainly was, taking the bus into the centre of London without an adult even knowing where she had gone. And has the world become a more dangerous place in the meantime? Or are we just more scared?
I now regularly encourage the Redster and the Cutester, along with two other children on the street whose parents are on the same wavelength, to go off to the (very) local park sans adults and entertain themselves for an hour or so. The kids love it.
So, back to last Friday, when – mulling over all this – I unexpectedly found myself taking three extra children home for a spontaneous ‘It’s Friday!’ play date. After we got home, the Redster made the suggestion that the three older girls, all Year 6s aged 10/11, have an adult-free trip to the park while the Cutester and her friend had their drama lesson in the cafe opposite. I was up for it but of course hadn’t asked the parents. ‘Will your mum mind?’ I asked Friend A.
‘No, she’s fine with that.’
‘What about your mum?’ I asked Friend B.
‘She’s won’t mind.’
‘Are you sure?’ I said. I’ve seen less of Friend B’s mum of late and have no idea what her philosophy is on free-ranging children.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
So we all walked out together, me and the younger two to the cafe/drama venue, and the others to the park. We passed a couple of kids who have made friends with us, and each other, through the play street: Spiderman and the Boy Opposite. They had a third boy with them. (All three must be about 9/10 years old.) The girls had a football which they were kicking to each other as they walked along, and as they passed, the boys tried to tackle them by way of saying hello. Then I made the girls pick up the ball to cross the main road, and as we went our separate ways I looked back and saw the girls enter the park: a perfect picture of childhood freedom, as one of them threw the ball in a soaring arc into the park and they all began to chase after it in the sunshine.
Half an hour later the three girls came bursting into the café.
‘There’s been an incident,’ they said, shoving Friend B towards me.
‘Oh dear,’ I said, not entirely seriously, as Friend B looked completely unharmed. ‘Am I going to be in trouble with your mum for letting you go to the park without an adult?’
‘Yes probably,’ said Friend B. ‘She wouldn’t normally let me.’
The incident was: the three boys followed the girls to the park and suggested a game of football. This was going well, until the unknown third boy took a shine to Friend B and began making advances. He said she was cute and he loved her and wanted to know her address and by the way, his dad was so rich he had a hundred iPhone 6s. This freaked out Friend B, and even his own friends when he wouldn’t stop hassling her, and so the girls took the ball and ran off to find me. End of incident. On our way home, Spiderman and the Boy Opposite were waiting for us on the street, and they dragged their friend out from behind a wheelie bin and made him apologise. Which was quite sweet really.
I spent the rest of my evening, and about a hundred text messages, trying to convince the mother of Friend B that I hadn’t acted irresponsibly. ‘I asked her TWICE!’ I wailed several times. ‘She said yes TWICE!’ Meanwhile, Friend B herself was insisting to her mum that she had actually said ‘I’m not sure I’m allowed.’ So the poor mum had no idea what to think and I ended up feeling somewhat in the doghouse.
If it was just my own child, I could reflect on her experience of learning to deal with troublesome 10-year-old boys. That has to be part of growing up, hasn’t it? And they did come up with a solution: run for the hills!! But I feel terrible about putting someone else’s child in that position, unauthorised.
I think for the next play date I will make sure my children’s friends spend their time with us parked safely in front of a screen. Before I get arrested.
I’ll just leave you with the following food for thought, and make the observation that the 8-year-old who gets to go 300 yards on his own has more freedom than most 8-year-olds I know in London right now…