Tuesday 11 January 2011

The Downward Spiral Of Childhood Self-Reliance

For someone who regards Lenore Skenazy as one of life's true idols, what I am about to recount is deeply depressing.

A colleague was explaining the hassle he is experiencing over the decision to allow his 11 year old daughter to travel to and from school on her own from the start of this term. The journey involves one bus trip which she boards on the main road, 100 yards from his house in a quiet suburban side street and terminates, 3 miles further on, about 50 yards from her school.

He and his wife are both agreed that she is more than mature and responsible enough to take on such a simple journey, but they have received nothing but irrational panic about the idea from his mother-in-law. At first, she was disturbed that this was going to be every day of the week (as if paedos and thieves only work part time or something), but after inspecting the route herself (yes, I laughed too), he said that she seemed satisfied.

It appears he was wrong as, a week after the term started, she is now insisting that the girl is picked up from two after-school club she attends, on the basis that it is starting to get dusky at around 4pm, and she read somewhere of a 15 year old boy being attacked by a group of kids on a road near his home. As such, his wife is now feeling pressured and wavering on her confidence in their decision.

Now, I don't know the age of the grandparent, but one assumes that it is almost inconceivable that she wouldn't have travelled to school unaccompanied herself at that age, or even when a few years younger than that.

[...] in 1971 eight out of ten eight-year-olds were allowed to walk to school alone. Now it is fewer than one in ten.
What, then, has happened in the intervening decades which convinces her that 11 year old kids are no longer responsible enough to cope with a 10 minute walk and bus journey?

Is the bus's on-board CCTV not as good quality as 40 years ago? Perhaps there isn't the same level of surveillance now that they had in the 50s. Not enough street furniture or road signs/pelicans/zebras anymore? Or maybe people were far more meek and terrified of the state and it's laws back then.

No, of course not. We are living through some of the safest years this country has ever seen. Kids, especially, are treated as preciously as fine crystal; every odd behaviour is monitored to the point of paedohysteria; everyone and his wife is CRB checked; and should a kid be harassed in plain view, the torches and pitchforks would be out in seconds.

But while the above has made our reality safer, it has also rendered the perception of our safety totally unrealistic.

In pursuit of comprehensive safety, we are bombarded with life-strangling rules on how to stay risk-free; health & safety and litigation prohibits even mildly risky behaviour; 24 hour TV eagerly fills hours earnestly furrowing brows about the very few truly horrific incidents; scare stories make great copy for lurid press headline writers desperate for sales; rent-a-quote politicians convince us there are drunks/paedos/gangs lurking behind every lamp post and under manhole covers just waiting to attack us; something must be done, so over-reactive laws are passed because the public - who have swallowed all this nonsense whole - demand it ... for the chiiildren.

Result? A climate of fear which keeps an entire generation insulated from any form of self-reliance and personal responsibility until secondary school or beyond.

And so it spirals downward. For risk-terrified children grow up into risk-terrified adults, and where the aforementioned grandparent is worried about her grandchild travelling on her own three years later than she did herself, one wonders how old the kids of 25 years hence will be before being allowed out on their own. Anywhere.

What makes one weep, though, is that there doesn't seem to be any way - or will, even - of reversing the process. We are destined to be forever frightened of state and media-created bogeymen - which actively derogate our lives - for the foreseeable future.

Now that is really scary.


Anonymous said...

I think there is a significant chance that children who have been treated as breakable objects and taught to be afraid of everything will turn to insane risk taking as adults as a form of rebellion. I did precisely that in response to a very controlling parent who more or less refused to let me out of their sight. Whether a future generation of base jumpers, tightrope walkers, drug samplers and motorcycle stunt riders is necessarily a good thing is, of course a matter of opinion. Personally I think that is preferable to a generation of risk averse, panic stricken sheep.

Clarissa said...

Stupid, isn't it?

20 years ago I cycled to school. I didn't wear a helmet, used the road rather than the pavement (this included one main road and another with a hill that had a number of blind corners) and still somehow managed to live to tell the tale.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Anon @ 13:37: That's a good point you make. Hopefully these things move in cycles and calculated risk-taking will become less frowned upon in the future. I remain pessimistic, though.

Clarissa: Indeed. I think I was 8 or a young 9 when I began getting to and from school on my own, a mile walk crossing one busy crossroads (I knew how to wait for the 'green man'). :)

Anonymous said...

I walked to school on my own when I was seven .
1967 we all wore shorts and duffle coats.
God it was character building when it snowed.
I agree with anion at 13:37 ,e.g. the "bad girls" always seem to have gone to convent shools ?

JuliaM said...

Oh, the 'green man'! Does that get taught now?

I remember getting a talk in junior school from a railway worker, warning of the terrible dangers lurking on the railway if we trespassed - I particularly remover his gruesome retelling of one unfortunate who touched the live rail and melted 'like soap'. His brief appeared to have been one page - 'scare the bejeesus out of the little darlings'.

Can you imagine the panic and demand for counsellors if anyone were to arrange such a talk these days?

Guthrum said...

...... and I lived in a cardboard box in the middle of the road.

Only joking !

Its our own fault allowing this to fester in our communities.

Our local town square is festooned with spikes, barbed wire and anti vandal paint. I am attending a meeting tonight, to examine why people are not using the square for recreation.

Could be something to do with the fact it looks like a WW1 battle field.

Anonymous said...

Between ages 8 and 11, I caught two public buses to travel 11 miles to school.

Funny thing is, my mum was one of those who wouldn't let me out straight after a bath (especially with wet hair), or allow me to swim after a meal etc...

PT Barnum said...

Having encountered succeeding cohorts of 18- and 19-year old undergraduates for the last 20 odd years, largely from nice middle-class families, what I have seen is not risk-taking of even the most moderate kind, but fear and ignorance in spades, far beyond anything that could be considered normal or healthy.

It is the incompetence that really bugs me, born of never having had to do anything for themselves, like getting out of bed without being told. And it won't be base jumping that threatens their lives, it will be food poisoning, as even the most basic food hygiene is news to them. They bring one or both parents to every meeting. They demonstrate baffled outrage if their work is deemed unsatisfactory. And this year for the first time ever I have seen the kind of bullying worthy of 12 year olds (of a Scouse student for her strong accent).

Give me a student aged 35 or over and I will have someone who is self-reliant, responsible, eager to learn and a joy to teach. Younger than that and they are infants playing at being grown ups, badly.

Dick Puddlecote said...

PT Barnum: I don't doubt you one little bit. Kids aren't allowed enough experience to become self-reliant anymore.

Check out Google's Ngram tool for the prevalence of subjects written about over time. This and this could have something to do with it.

will said...

at some point 'concern' or rather paranoia to properly identify it, has become equated with parental love. thus the increased level of the former supposedly displays an increased level of the latter.
this is further conflated by peer pressure amongst parents. at coffee mornings up and down the country 'concerned' mums will be unwittingly competing to display as much paranoia as possible. "well i wouldnt let my brooklyn within 50 feet of... etc etc" and it snowballs into a mutual fear fest (or circle jerk if you prefer).
In DP's example the peer pressure is not between separate parents but between the mother and the grandmother. the grandmother seems to be one upping her own daughter as to who is fulfilling their role the best. which mother is more concerned/loving of the child.
now with the unstoppable beast that is mumsnet this will only worsen. the most terrifying thing i have seen so far this year was an insane bbc polemic that was no more than a platform for mumsnet. i cant remember the programme but it was absolutely full of unsubstantiated claims and opinions.
if these helicopter parents had to pay the full cost of everything they demand directly then you might see the reemergence of some realistic risk assessment. for example if the gargantuan CRB bureaucracy was funded exclusively by parents rather than the VAT on my condoms they might magically become a bit less 'concerned'.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Will: *Applause* :)

Breaker said...

And yet the biggest killer of children is cars.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Breaker: Quite right. But it's still irrational for a Grandparent to be scared of such things.

"[...] in that year [1976] a total of 668 children (0 to 15 year-olds) were killed on the roads in England and Wales, either in cars or as pedestrians.

Now let’s compare that with today. In 2004 (the most recent figure available from the Department of Transport) the number of 0 to 15 year-olds killed was 166 — a reduction of 75 per cent. Such fatalities and serious injuries have been falling consistently since the 1970s, thanks largely to better car safety features, child seats and road design. Nevertheless, many parents are convinced that the roads are more hazardous than in their day because there is “more traffic” and “people drive faster”."

Anonymous said...

Teacher sacked for letting pupils ride on a sledge.


Have you seen this?
John Gibson

Pirran said...

Like many here, I used to routinely walk to and from school in rural Cornwall (about 2 miles) particularly after after-school events.

Indeed, at the age of 7, I was so annoyed that my mother was late arriving at my previous school, that I just stomped off on my own (a distance of about 5 miles) instead of catching the bus as I usually would. The police were called, but as I was discovered happily munching on a sandwich at home by my mother when she returned, everything returned to normal and it was laughed off. I don't think I was even punished.

Now, I'd be a face on a milk carton before I got half-way.

Anonymous said...

Yes, teacher sacked for allowing children on sledge. At first I thought there must be more to it - perhaps they had been after him for other things; but apparently not.

lenore skenazy said...

Naturally I'm worried about the same thing -- I'm Lenore herself! But don't despair. I really do think that a lot of us are coming to the same conclusion: Excessive fear has been foisted upon us by all the things you suggest -- the media, a litigious society, marketers eager to create a worry so their product can assuage it -- and we are starting to fight back. Me. You. A lot of folks. With any luck we'll look back and say, "What a weird panicked time that was!" Keep fighting the good fight! Lenore "Free-Range Kids" Skenazy (across the pond)

Dick Puddlecote said...

Honoured that you popped in, Lenore, and thanks for your thoughts.

I hope you're correct that the public are starting to wake up, but I don't see much evidence over here at the moment. All we can do is ensure that our own kids grow up self-reliant, and dream that such 'old-fashioned' ideas will become trendy again someday. :)