04 June 2007

Captive Childhoods

At Easter, my wife and I took one of those bold steps of parenthood: we started allowing our 4½ and 6½-year-old children to play unsupervised in our quiet cul-de-sac; coincidentally, a neighbour up the other end of the street took the same decision at the same time, so our four children have been riding their bikes up and down the street and playing in each other's gardens ever since.

If today's Children's Society Good Childhood Inquiry truly represents society at large, then it seems that we are in the minority and rather old-fashioned in our views (but then, we probably knew that anyway!) as 43% of adults believe that children should not be allowed out with friends until they reach the age of 14. As the BBC's commentary notes: in 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been free to wander 840 metres from her front door; by 1977 it was 280 metres; now the limit appears to have come down to the front doorstep. Children are no longer allowed to spend time independently with friends—something that used to be thought fundamental to every child's well-being and social and emotional development.

The disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann forces every parent to re-evaluate the freedoms that they permit their children. Yet, it was Inspector Gadget who recently observed that it is often the people who display 'Find Madeleine' posters in the window who don't know where their own young children are at 9.00 pm at night! We have reminded our children that they should stick together and are not to go into even a friend's house without first letting us know, but perhaps we should be keeping a tighter rein on them?

As we learnt back in February from the UNICEF Innocenti report Child Poverty in Perspective, the physical and emotional well-being of British children is now the worst among the world's wealthiest nations. Have we truly become a nation of paranoid isolationists raising a risk averse generation stifled by illusionary fears? Whatever happened to the adventures of The Famous Five and The Hardy Boys — is it in any way symbolic that their seemingly realistic tales have been replaced by the impossible dreamworld of Harry Potter?

No doubt you will let me know what you are doing or would do in my position as a parent who wants to do the best by his children.