The Cutester is going away on her first residential school trip in two weeks’ time – five nights away from home, the longest in her ten years of existence. She is of course torn between excitement and terror.
I was trying to calm her fears one bedtime (What if I start throwing up in the middle of the night? What if I cry and everyone calls me a cry baby?) when out of the blue she said, “Can I walk to school on my own tomorrow?”
You might recall that I said no to cycling on her own, but I didn’t have a problem with her walking. I reminded her that it’s 1.7 miles uphill, etc, and she was unfazed. So we agreed to do it together the next day (I wore new shoes and got a blister, but she was fine) – and the day after that, on her own.
Except I forgot to mention this plan to Mr Suburbanite until about five minutes before she was due to set off.
“No way,” was his considered response from inside the bathroom.
“But,” I bleated through the door. “Helicopter parents… tiny risk… children’s freedom…”
“It’s long stretches of deserted street! Not an acceptable risk!”
Next to me the Cutester’s shoulders were starting to slump.
“How about I follow her all the way?” I said in desperation.
It was a deal. She walked about 50 metres ahead, with me trailing behind pushing my bike (so I could avoid blisters on the return journey). It was quite surreal. We were too distant to talk to each other, and she marched straight ahead without looking back, except when she stopped and carefully checked for traffic at every side road.
I felt both privileged and somehow an intruder to watch her first (sort of) solo voyage to school. A collection of key rings dangled from her rucksack, ranging from a large pom pom named Brian to a tiny pair of china clogs we bought in the Netherlands. She had brushed her hair nicely and decorated it with a huge violet ‘Jo-Jo bow’ (latest YouTuber craze, so I’m told). Her long hair, especially in the sunshine, is the most beautiful and indescribable colour, and I entertained myself trying to describe it. Chestnut? Auburn? Honey? Caramel? Nothing comes close.
Frustrating as it is for my free-range parenting ambitions, I do understand Mr Suburbanite’s fears. Traffic is not so much of an issue for this walk – it’s ‘stranger danger’. As I said before, it involves virtually empty pavements. Between muttering under my breath about his paranoia, I was half wondering how hard it would be for someone to pull up alongside her in a white van, jump out, bundle her in, and drive off again.
I’ve started reading The Happiest Kids in the World about Dutch parenting, and the authors mention the lack of a gutter press in the Netherlands. Stranger danger therefore isn’t blown out of all proportion, and parents are more relaxed about children being independent (although I imagine the much safer cycling and walking conditions have a lot to do with that). I know that the chances of a child being snatched by a stranger in the UK are infinitesimally small – you’re more likely to be murdered by someone you know – but then, but then… what if? Once or twice a year you hear a local report of a child who was nearly grabbed in the park, or on the pavement by a van driver, and the school sends all the parents a ‘be careful’ text message. I have no idea how based in fact those stories are.
As it happens, there wasn’t any point during her 30-minute journey that the Cutester was completely alone (not counting me) on the pavement. People were spread out, one or two at a time, but they were there. I’d just be happier if there were much more of them. This is the problem with Enfield’s car-dependent society – if everyone walked or cycled to school instead of getting in their cars, stranger danger wouldn’t even be imagined. The streets would be thronged with people.
Later I asked her how she’d found her walk to school.
“It was good. I liked it,” she said.
“What did you like about it?”
“It was nice and peaceful…”
(Oh, so she means without me yapping away in her ear?)
“…until I got to Southgate station.”
“Oh, you mean nice and peaceful without the traffic?”
“Yes. It was good for thinking.”
“And,” she said, “I feel independent.”
“Yeah, I don’t feel so scared about going away with school.”
Thank the Lord.
I was catapulted back into my own childhood for a moment – wandering the streets of Muswell Hill alone or with friends, free of meddling adults, at home in our surroundings. No one fretted about strangers. We played on the same street where Dennis Nielson carried out a string of gruesome murders and were none the wiser. Happy days.
On Monday, I’ll suggest she walks the bus route – a bit longer, but much more public, so more humans out on the street. And maybe a friend or two who live en route can be coaxed from the safety of their parents’ cars to keep her company…