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?"
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.