I was in Carrefour the other day with my four-year-old son. As I browsed the magazines, he wandered off to the toy section. A couple of minutes later a friend approached leading him by the hand. ‘I found him by the toys,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Oh, er, thanks,’ I replied. ‘Did you know he was missing?’ she asked. ‘Er, well, I knew he’d be at the toys, he always goes over there,’ I said. ‘My god, don’t let him do that,’ she insisted, ‘you never know who might take him.’
Statistically he has more chance of dying from falling out of his bed than being abducted by a stranger – but I politely thanked her and went back to my shopping. My friend’s over-reaction is not an unusual one. In the age of the helicopter parent we are reminded daily – thanks to 24-hour news channels and shelves of books on good parenting – that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, leaving us riddled with self-doubt and fearing for our children’s safety.
Lenore Skenazy, writer of Free Range Kids: Giving our children the freedom we had without going nuts with worry, started the Free Range Kids movement as a reaction to ‘over-parenting’. Her theory is that our children are so over-protected that we are raising a generation who will grow up lacking the tools to take risks or think laterally and with imagination. Worse, we’re depriving them of a proper childhood while simultaneously making parenthood a hellish, guilt- and angst-ridden experience for ourselves.
Skenazy caused uproar when she wrote in her New York column of how she let her nine-year-old son make his way home alone from Bloomingdales by taking the subway. She gave him 20 dollars and a metro card along with instructions on how to get home. She then left him to figure it out for himself. The response has been outrage by critics and parents alike, labelling her the ‘worst mother in America’. However, she also has a large following and a blog where brave parents share their free-range parenting stories, and has highlighted a radical new movement – ‘the kids walk to school programme’ – which encourages children to (gasp!) walk to school by themselves.
‘Ten is the new two’ says Skenazy. ‘We’re infantilising our kids into incompetence.’ It’s true. Just take a look at the proliferation of safety products flooding the market, from toddler helmets to bath thermometers (what’s wrong with putting your hand in to check the temperature? Have we lost that much confidence in our own judgment?). Leaving aside car safety, which is undeniably a good thing, many of these products exist purely to scare us into believing that our children are at risk if we don’t buy them.
Skenazy also decries the likes of parenting columnist Dear Abby, who ran a column advising parents to take a digital photograph of their child every morning to give to the police should that child be abducted, saying; ‘If you for some reason wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you would have to keep him or her outside, unattended, for 750,000 years for this to be statistically likely to happen.’
Childcare expert Rachel Waddilove agrees: ‘Children are wrapped in cotton wool today because of parents’ fear of not getting it right, of harming their children for life,’ says the author of The Baby Book and The Toddler Book. ‘I think many parents are fearful that their children won’t love them if they show discipline. Sadly, because of this, one of the things that happens is that children don’t learn to take any risks, resulting in very fearful adults.’
Ironically there has never been a safer time to raise children. In the United States, according to Department of Justice figures, crime has dropped to the level of 1970, meaning that, statistically, our children are safer today than those of us born in the ’70s. According to statistics, 80 per cent of child molestations are carried out by friends or relatives, not by strangers. In the UAE in particular child abduction is practically unheard of and yet we’re terrified to let them out of our sight.
When I was eight years old my mother allowed me to walk to our local shop all by myself for the first time. The shop was about a mile away and when I returned home, jubilant at my first taste of independence, I realised my mother wasn’t home but was in fact behind me: she had followed me all the way there, weaving in and out of trees, ninja-like, as I happily skipped along.
She didn’t follow me the next time – I had proven that I was trustworthy and that was good enough for her. Allowing an eight-year-old child to walk a mile to the shops would be enough to have you reported to the authorities these days. In fact, there is one story from Skenazy’s blog about a woman who allowed her 11-year-old son to walk the mile to soccer practice only to have him returned to her shortly afterwards by a finger-wagging police officer.
Have we all gone mad? My nine-year-old daughter has been begging me to allow her to walk to the mall alone (it’s a 10-minute walk through a compound) but when I mentioned this to some other mothers I was met with much head-shaking and comments such as ‘Oh I wouldn’t take that risk’, which is precisely the problem. We know in all probability that nothing bad will happen, but as long as there is that doubt (and the certainty that if something did happen we, and everyone else around us would point the accusatory finger), we’re not going to take that chance. And so we keep them at home under our watchful eye or drive them to the mall ourselves.
Nowadays, letting children just ‘be’, without a schedule or agenda is regarded as tantamount to neglectful parenting. ‘When we were children we played outside until dusk with any kid available,’ says mother-of-three, Denise Hartley. ‘These days children either go on supervised ‘play dates’ or attend after-school activities. Down-time just doesn’t exist.’
While I’m not suggesting that we go out of our way to put our children at risk, it is clear that a healthy neglect is vital if we wish to produce useful and resourceful members of society for the future. Children who can’t fight their own battles or amuse themselves for 10 minutes without supervision won’t be much use in a crisis. Plus, it makes parenting a whole lot easier and cheaper if you can say ‘children, go and make a tent!’ without having to buy the special tent-making kit from the Early Learning Centre or do anything more than supply the sheet.
Does all of this mean I won’t panic next time I get to the toy section to find my son has disappeared? Probably not, although realistically the worst that can happen is that he’ll throw a tantrum until I agree to buy him a new toy…. But that’s a topic for a whole other article.