Monday, 6 May 2013

On outside and childhood and freedom

It's beautiful out, the air heavy and honeyed with lilac and cherry blossom, catching in my throat and making my nose itch, filling me with skittish energy. There are insistently trilling blackbirds and  and strange cats lying in improbable, random places as if carelessly dropped there, fat puddles of dusty fur and indifference. As the sun fades and the sky turns a lazy pink at this time in the evening, drifts of charcoal smoke billow over the wall from the neighbour's barbecue. The first bluebottle of the season has found its way into the house and is bumping, manically against the window, over and over again, about half an inch from the opening that would allow it to escape. It's that time of year when you remember what it feels like to lie face down in grass that still has a ghost of winter damp and a smell of damp earth about it, when you roll up an experimental trouser leg, revealing the vulnerable greyish hospital pallor within. It is, definitively, a time to be outside, now, quickly, while the brief glorious flash of warmth lasts. For all we know, this might be it: summer. It's happened before. I've lit a fire in July some years.

I've been thinking about outside a lot since reading this article over the weekend. It's about allowing your children more freedom, allowing them "unstructured play in nature". You know the kind of thing: letting them loose to climb trees, run and jump, make fires and cook on them, live their own lives and roam free, like the Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons. This makes children happy, runs the author's argument; it makes them competent, and responsible. This is the way of the tribal and indigenous societies she has observed and approves and moreover, it ticks all our nostalgic buttons. It sounds right: it sounds beautiful and natural, and Rousseau-ian. It's also sounds completely impossible.

That's not a criticism of the piece: the author doesn't suggest any of this is particularly achievable for those of us who don't live in remote tribal societies and since it was an excerpt from a book, I don't really know where the rest of her argument, or lament, goes (this suggests it doesn't go anywhere very coherent). Even so, it's an interesting idea, and a nice ideal. Rather, I suppose, I want someone to tell me how it's achievable, and what's ok when you live in a city in 2013 rather than in a close-knit nomadic community in Paraguay. When is it ok for your kid to go to the park round the corner and poke some bushes with sticks? To the shops? Where is he even going to find a place to set a fire without getting arrested?

We're lucky, really. We live in a city, but it's a diminutive one, and our corner of it is more provincial town than scary 21st century capital. There's the tiny park in the next street, the grotty kind of place where teenagers sit around on climbing frames in the evening smoking and and half-heartedly kicking balls as disapproving grandmothers walk their daschunds. It's a place where you see the same faces every day, where my children have mates who live a few doors down who come and knock on the door and ask to play.  It feels dozy and provincial, familiar to me: it's a fair match, actually, for the kind of place I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. I lived in the Groves, in York, which sounds rather posh and is now, but wasn't specially then, a network of streets of small terraced brick houses punctuated by a warren of back alleys and lanes, a car park - largely deserted in the evenings - for riding your bike around, a square of open un-walled grass outside the old ladies home at the end of the street, three or four corner shops of varying levels of desirability, sweet and owner fierceness wise.

It's tempting to give your own childhood the sepia tint and Dvorak soundtrack of a Hovis advert and of course, that's nonsense, but it is true that I was allowed out to play, all the time, even though my mother was one of the most anxious people I've ever met. I marvel at this, sometimes: how I walked to school alone when I was 7, walked my rabbit on a lead (oh yes) to the old ladies home to nibble the dandelions at 8, played out and roamed the streets at ten, me and Alice Gladwin buying Cowan's Highland Toffee and trying to poison the neighbours with Baby Bio plant food that we left on their doorstep in shampoo bottles, alluringly labelled "Delishus drink". The streets were, in a tiny way, ours.  I wonder how attitudes shifted so hard and fast, that what was completely normal even for my dreadfully anxious mother, seems unthinkable to me. Wasn't she scared? A kid was killed in a hit and run in our street when I was growing up. It was Yorkshire in the 1980s, in the long shadow of the Ripper. Why wasn't she terrified, and why am I?

I don't really have an answer. Flippantly, I said recently to someone that the chilling Public Information films we watched at school in the 1980s had a lot to answer for in the way they made the world seem a terrifying, violent, dangerous place. Nothing before or since scared me as much as those films, watched in terrified silence in the school library: the terrors that lurked in rivers, building sites, farms. For weeks after we watched one, my daily routine seemed fraught with imminent peril: crossing a road, innocently poking a bush, making toast: any of a hundred mundane daily activities might at any minute reduce me to a blood soaked shoe and a succession of minor chords. That's not it, of course it isn't, but I do wonder if the terrifying and ever-present narrative of 21st century news has had a similar, but far wider effect. We know that statistically, those unthinkably terrible crimes against children are no more common now than they were 30 years ago, but the stories are told so often, so widely and in such visceral detail that there's no escaping them. Your very worst nightmare, your coldest late night terror, is laid out in front of you: it happens.

I have tried, recently, to give my children a tiny bit more freedom. I didn't think it would be a struggle: I like watching them grow up. I don't (yet?) feel wistful or regretful or panicky as they get more independent; it seems like proof that they are fundamentally ok that they should seek to have more freedom, to do more ambitious things. I'm on the robuster end of the spectrum, I think: the youngest went away on an 8 day camp at Easter with his science club; they both spend several weeks a year with their cousins and their very relaxed grandparents, on a campsite, fairly loosely supervised: their grandfather cycles round to check on the gang of four of them every half hour. The little one is nine, and my eldest just turned eleven. Eleven is a proper age, an age at which you might quite reasonably start taking a bus on your own, I think. The boys walk the paltry couple of hundred yards to school alone (well, together, sullenly, a resentful few paces apart), and it seemed time for a little more. He's dreamy, my elder son, and easily distracted but surely, by analogy with those eight year old Inuits carving caribou with deadly sharp knives, a little more responsibility will sharpen his instincts, deepen his common sense? And since there are two of them, surely that's safer?

Last week I sent both of them down the street - probably three hundred yards, all told - to get an ice cream on their own. It's only a little bit further than their daily trip to school, it was bright daylight, they took the dog, they were to stay together, buy an ice cream, come home. It seemed like the logical, appropriate next step. I hadn't felt more than a mild frisson of anxiety, but when the doorbell rang a few minutes later and there was only my eldest son, I felt I hadn't been scared enough.

"Where's F?" I thought they were playing a joke on me, but the eldest's face froze.

"Isn't he here?"

I grabbed my keys and ran straight down the street, the eldest following, panicky.

"You were supposed to stay together!"

"But .. he wanted an ice cream from the first shop and I wanted one from the second and.. "

The three hundred yards felt sickeningly long, enough time for a thousand scenarios, a thousand anticipated regrets to play out in my head. By the time we reached the ice cream shop, the eldest, picking up on my panic, was crying. F wasn't at the ice cream shop counter. Another eternity as I scanned the quiet early evening street. "Where did you last see him?"

"Just here!"

I looked the other way and there he was, finally, strolling along the pavement to the second ice cream shop, cone in one hand, dog lead nonchalantly draped over the wrist of the other, untroubled, confident. The street was his; he was king of the road.

"There he is".

By some kind of tacit mutual accord, we didn't really tell F how scared I had been. I told him - both of them - quite strictly that they had been told to stay together, and that if they couldn't follow instructions, they couldn't do that kind of thing alone. That seemed enough: I didn't want to let them anywhere  near the horrible imaginings still vivid in my head. We walked home slowly together and I held the eldest's hand tightly. My heart gradually descended from my throat and I started to feel the burn in my chest from running the adrenalin had masked. We were all fine.

Is this how it's going to be, then, my children growing up? A succession of episodes of suppressed dread, irrational tiny terrors, anticipated catastrophes, worst case scenarios? I don't want my fear - fear I didn't even really think I had, particularly - to taint their growing up. I want to believe I can allow them the freedom and the fun and even the occasional fear that comes with getting independence. I want them to engage with the world without taking on some learned superstitious dread from me. But how do you really do that, whether you're the Yali of West Papua, or concerned of Uccle? Can you learn not to be afraid, or as seems more probable, can you only learnt to live with the fear?  I don't know. I guess that's the next challenge. I think I might need some Xanax.


soleils said...

I want to leave an insightful and helpful comment, but this beautiful post of yours has left me mildly heart-broken and stuck for words or coherent thoughts.

Because I too have felt this sickening panic on a few occasions with my three small men (similar ages to yours, 11 and two 8-year-olds), and I too have no idea how I am going to survive the next few years... or the longer term future for that matter - I am told (by my mother) that as a mother, you never stop worrying. And yet, I spent my childhood running wild for hours on end, with my friends or alone, learning so much that way. But I cannot bring myself to allowing my boys the same bliss. And the handful of times I have, well...

MsCaroline said...

I'm sure that there are other (calmer) people out there who will tell you that it's not a big deal, but my experience has been that, yes, it's scary. Not for them, of course. The first time my son went on a road trip (in the US) with 3 other friends to a city 3 hours away to see a concert (they were all in their late teens and had been driving for at least 2 years) I was sick with worry. In fact, I required Son#1's best friend (who was riding in the front passenger seat) to text me at regular intervals so that I would know they were OK. He asked me what he should text, and I told him I didn't care, just anything so I knew they were alive. His first text was the word "taco," and they all (apparently) spent the rest of the road trip coming up with the most obscure possible words and phrases. Point being: it was horrible for me (not their dad, the sanguine monster) but I survived and so did they. When Son#2(3 years younger) headed out on his first significantly independent outing as a teenager, I asked him to do the same thing - let me know he was OK with an occasional text. First thing he texted me was the word 'taco.' Somewhere along the line, the word has become the family joke for calming down anxious mum. All this to say - yes, you will feel that fear, and yes this is part of why everyone hates it that their kids are growing up - this 'gaining independence' part of it is not so much fun.

SusanJane said...

I hate to tell you this, but the worries simply change with the age of the offspring. My daughter had an astonishing amount of freedom when we lived in the country; she rode her horse all over the place for hours on end and this was before cell phones. She drove across the country with a couple of friends in a ratty old car at age 19 and spent the summer digging ditches in Seattle. I look back and am terrified in retrospect. I can't imagine my granddaughters having the same freedom. Something has changed in our mother-psyche; the world is far more fraught, and I think in some way this is because it is more crowded. There are twice the number of people in America now as when I was born, and they have shifted far more to urban areas. My grands in Seattle may never be able to go down the street alone until they can drive; my daughter is far more protective than I ever was. I think you just have to trust your guts and know your neighborhood.

Patience_Crabstick said...

I try to be a "free range parent" and have been scolded by busybodies for being so. I've experienced that fear too, though. I don't think it ever stops. My 17 year old daughter works as a hostess in a restaurant and has her own car, but there's the scary walk from the restaurant to wherever she parked. She calls me when she gets out and I talk to her on the phone until she has reached her car. What on earth would I do if something were to actually happen to her while I'm talking to her? One night, she was annoyed with me and didn't return my phone calls, so I went out at 10:30 PM and circled the streets around the restaurant until I saw her walking with one of her co-workers. She was fine and I drove home and never told her what I'd done. I guess I'm not such a free range parent after all.

Laurel said...

I have been having the same internal debate recently. It's a little bit less high-stakes since my children are recently 6 and almost 4. But the other day my father-in-law let my son ride around the block by himself on his bicycle and I took off running barefoot down the blacktop to find him as soon as I heard it. He's careful but he isn't old enough to have learned to keep his wits about him around driveways or in crossing some streets. And even in our yard, I tell him he has to play where I can see him from the windows, because I can't count the times he's wandered off somewhere and I've had to hunt him down.

Even the smaller bits of self-reliance, like making sure they do their own chores or get their own milk from the fridge, often fall prey to the simple issue of time and energy, because I need to chivvy them about and show them how to clean up when they make a mess.

And that's apart from all the real horrors we are more aware of now--probably they've always happened at the same rate but now we hear about them. I also do think our lives provide less cushion these days--we live in landscapes with far fewer social interconnections to help us negotiate safety and look out for one another.

But, if it makes you feel any better, I'm really impressed by how your sons do take so many trips with relatives, to camp, etc., and entertain themselves well at home. You seem very successfully free-range to me. I know I only see a bit of them through your posts, but F & L seem like happy, healthy, curious, inventive boys who will grow up independent but not reckless.

(VW: stress ! Refreshed because I couldn't read part of it, second VW: safety !)

Grit said...

we give personal survival rules and an absolute non-negotiable deadline for return, then send them out as a pack on the basis that they will look after each other; the very sight of the oncoming kid rabble it is hoped would send mr spoooky running.

mind you, it helps being part of the strange tribe already cast out from normal society, ie 'the home educators'. i can hear the hissing stirring already.

frau antje said...

They probably get more out of practicing tacit mutual accords than anything else.

Book IV of Emile is all about Xanax (before he laughs, and tells you he left all his five children on the steps of a foundling home).

breakfastlady said...

I heard the author of that book being interviewed on Start the Week yesterday (and to some extent, having her arguments questioned by Michael Rosen). I'm similarly conflicted. On the one hand, yes, I want my kids (6 and 7) to dangle upside down from trees, but on the other hand, HOW? When you live in a big city, where the roadsides are littered with floral tributes to squashed infants? For me, the traffic thing is more of a worry than the abduction thing. I'm almost convinced that the world is full of far more good kind people than child abducters.
As Grit says, children in packs look out for each other too. But we grown-ups have demonised the pack of children, as if all external space were ours. We need to recognise that children have as much right to do their thing outside as we do.

Helen said...

I don't have children, so my comments aren't informed in that sense, but I want to say first how beautifully this was written and second how well you dealt with it.

What I mean is that, yes, there was the blind panic (and thank god nothing was wrong), but afterwards you did, I think, the right thing in not telling Fingers how scared you were.

I'm the kind of person who thinks that if the Dutchman doesn't respond to an email he's been hit by a tram. Catastrophising is a simply marvellous trait... I absolutely do not want my children to look at the world the way I do. Keep yourself safe, but don't let the potential dangers stop you doing things. Seems to me you're doing exactly the right thing with their independence.

(Writing this from the balcony festooned with tentative wisteria blooms. Do not want to catch the Eurostar back to London this afternoon. Brussels sunshine too rare to miss!)

lalalorlor said...

I finally let my 'mom, you know I'm almost 13!' daughter take her bike out by herself in our neighborhood. I sat in the flower bed and pretended to pull weeds as terrible visions of her being run over or abducted ran through my head. She came home in one piece and happy.

I have to let her go to week long camps, ride her bike, go to the store by herself, and take the bus by herself. HAVE TO! Because if I don't, my sweet daughter won't keep her fierce independence and learn to make her way in this cruel world on her own. I am learning to shut off my anxiety for the safety of my legally blind daughter so she knows she can do anything she wants instead of being afraid to venture out on her own in a world she can't see very well.

I feel your anxiety - I've got it too in spades.

cruella said...

I'm a very anxious, catastrophising person indeed. And I remember when my firstborn was one year old and I babysat a friend's daughter who was four. She was allowed to skip all by herself to the corner shop maybe 50meters from their building. It was the first time I realized truly, physically almost, that one day I would have to let my son do the same thing. And I simply couldn't fathom it.

But he grew older and I grew with him. When he was five he could go to our corner shop to buy whatever just for the fun of it (and useful it was to, he could get me things that were suddenly out - milk and such) but he would have to bring a pencil or something in order to reach the keycode to our building.

One day I had a friend over with her daughter and A begged me to go to the shop. Sure, go, but be straight back. Minutes passed, my friend and I talked, sipped coffee - and suddenly it was way past "straight back". And I realized that he had forgotten to bring the pen in order to get into the house.

I ran out, already panicking, to the shop - no A. Back to the house were I saw a man I knew in the common laundromat. Had he seen A? No. Out on the street, around the house to the other entrance. No kid.

I can't remember if I screamed or cried - but I remember the feeling of my heart beating wildly and my legs going all wobbly. I went back, around the house and got inside. And there he was, a bit winded, eyes wide. He hadn’t been able to open the door with the code and no one came by to let him in. But the cool-headed little guy remembered that he would reach the keycode at the other entrance and get in that way.

Even though I swear I aged 20 years in those minutes I was very grateful to have had proof that he wasn’t lost and helpless. That he could think straight although in a crisis of sorts. That convinced me that he would remember simple instructions such as never go with anyone without telling me or his dad (no need to expand on why then) and so on.

Now he’s 20 and the others are 17 and 15. I’ve let them go on buses and metro with friends or each other from the age of 8-9. Not randomly of course, but strictly from A to B. On bikes from maybe 10, provided that they use the bike lanes. We live near several parks and walks along the water, so traffic kan be avoided.

It’s harder to get use to the idea of my kids going out in the night clubbing or just hanging around now that spring is here. I’m still worried when my 20 year old is out until the wee hours and I ask him to text me when he leaves where-ever he has been, or if he stays with someone else over night.

When they are completely out of my reach it’s easier, strangely enough. Camps, field trips, sailing, skiing, music festivals – not much of a problem. I ask to have the phone numbers of friends as well as a small insurance.

missbaah said...

Goodness. This is so familiar. My step daughters are 8 and 10 and walk home from school by themselves most days. One day a few weeks ago the oldest decided to stop by a public toilet for a pee on the way home. Why she didn't pee in school is still unclear, since the public toilet is practically right beside the school.

Anyway, while she was otherwise engaged, the youngest decided she'd just go home alone rather than wait.

Fast forward 10 minutes and we receive a panicked phone call from their mother stating that the oldest had turned up alone, under the impression that her sister was already there, since she was gone by the time she got out of the public toilet.

Yeah. She wasn't. She decided to go wander around the market/high street at the pace of a snail instead, completely oblivious to the panic she was causing.

In a year an a half, the oldest will be at high school and expected to get a bus to us alone on her visiting days. I can't help but wonder if she'll actually be able to.

Anonymous said... Here is an oldie but a goodie about that parental panic, and the resourceful child. Do you know this one?
I've also been there, most recently with 21 year old taking a driving trip in a rental light truck - way too far, and in rainstorms! He turned out to be quite self-aware and capable, extremely helpful to his friends (who he was helping move house), and to the young lady hitchhikers he picked up. I now have a bit more real trust in his abilities, but still trouble in not worrying about the world he has to negotiate!
Heather (NZ)

Johnners said...

It's just like you crawled into my head, stirred up all the random fears and terrors about this very subject that live in there, and then wrote them all out properly and beautifully, with words and everything, so they made sense. A lovely post, thank you. You will have guessed that this is topic I am also feeling very strongly about at the moment. My own darling little boy wants to be 8, and free, or at least freer than I can bear. Too soon!

Ohlala Maman said...

Very beautifully written and true. I read that article too and I'd love to read the book, I'm obsessed with historical and anthropological child-rearing habits. I've had a couple of minutes of the blind panic heart pain when your child is "lost" and I am fearful for all the years (forever!) to come when I have to let them go. I once saw a woman who had lost her daughter in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris, down on her knees and shrieking her name over and over, blind with tears. That sound of mother-fear is something I will NEVER forget.

What Possessed Me said...

I love this post - I just want to roll around in the beauty of it.

Ann said...

I read a comment regarding this piece in the Guardian's comments.Someone saying that she'd love to give her kids more freedom, she knows that there is less harm nowadays, but then one reads about poor little April Jones, allowed an extra 20 minutes outside & never seen again. You do not want to be that mother or your child to suffer that fate. Yes, it's unlikely, hugely unlikely, but it's possible.

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