How free range are your kids?
I read an article recently about the Sustrans Free Range Kids Campaign.
Launched last July, the charity aims to promote active children, encouraging confidence in travelling independently, playing outdoors and exploring the local community for themselves.
I think it’s a great campaign and love what it promotes, especially if you live in an area full of quiet roads and leafy gardens.
But I live in the city where the roads are full of buses and angry, speeding drivers, plus a road that even I find difficult to cross.
The thought of ever waving my son goodbye as he pootles off down Goldsmith Avenue on his bike actually gives me chest pains. I find it hard enough letting him cycle near busy roads when I’m with him, constantly picturing him wobbling under the wheels of a passing number 18.
The article reminded me of the uproar in 2010 over the parents in London who let their children, aged eight and five, cycle the one mile route into school alone. It provoked an interesting contrast of views – frowns from the school and threats of social services in the one corner, and praises from parliament for teaching independence in the other.
In a separate incident last year, a woman was given a police caution for leaving her 14-year-old son in charge of his three-year-old brother for 30 minutes, even though the time passed apparently without incident.
My problem with this subject is that there is very little official advice on age guidelines and what advice we do get often seems ambiguous or conflicting.
Sustrans suggests it’s fine to let your eight–nine-year-old walk or cycle to school once you have shown them the best route, yet the NSPCC say that ‘children this young are rarely able to judge the speed of cars’.
The law is pretty elusive too, giving no legal age limit for leaving a child on their own, but declaring it a prosecutable offence to do so if it places them at risk.
Call me crazy but surely those children on bikes crossing roads in rush hour traffic are more at risk than the boy supervised for half an hour by his teenage brother.
And what if we do let our eight-year-old cycle to school alone and something unthinkable does happen? Would we still be heroic supporters of childhood independence, or would we be branded irresponsible?
It all seems scarily vague to me. They may as well say: ‘We’ll let you decide what’s best, but if you get it wrong we’ll whack you with a fine and maybe even throw you in jail.’
Of course, I know the law is vague because it has to be. There can be no firm guidelines because it’s entirely contextual, but it doesn’t make it any easier for us to know what is right, and there are chat rooms full of puzzled parents asking similar questions.
We even have the benefit of mobile phones now. Imagine how our parents must have felt sending us off into the world with no way of contacting us or tracking our smart phones online!
Whatever the answer is I’m sure I’ll still be fighting the urge to escort him places when he’s 16, then he’ll be the one doing all the frowning.