From the ages of 4 to 12 I attended a very small and very rural primary school, perched on the top of a hill from which we could see hills and stony valleys of farmland in all directions. My childhood vista was of damp green fields crossed with stone walls and lines of fat gold-blooming whim. I had a pretty good time in that safe little school, and I remember my years there with fondness.
For the first two years in school I was in the 'infants' classes, and we used to finish our lessons at 2pm while the older children pushed on to 3pm. Most of the infants were collected by their parents and brought home at 2, but for those of us whose parents could only come at 3 - especially those of us with older siblings who also needed collecting - we had one hour to wait. Most days we spent this hour, totally unsupervised, racing around the schoolyard, playing games, laughing ourselves silly. I'm 29 now and I clearly remember that a quarter of a century ago my favourite time of day was that hour of unequivocal liberty and fun I spent with my classmates - our teacher working on lessons or sipping tea inside.
Recently I increasingly hear that letting children run about without supervision has become far less common. Schools, terrified that a child might be injured and bitter parents drag them to court, feel pressurised to lock up children when they can't absolutely vouch for their safety.
I'm not sure how widespread the withdrawal of freedom for children in Ireland has been - the local kids in the suburban estate where I live now are constantly wandering around on their own business with no parents in sight - but I have come across a few disappointing or puzzling anecdotes of over-protective behaviour by adults lately.
The FreeRangeKids blog is run by American journalist Lenore Skenazy, who was denounced in American media for writing about how she let her 9-year-old son take the New York subway alone. They called her 'America's Worst Mom', but Skenazy seems to just take a pretty straight forward and obvious stance on child-rearing. She points out that most of us adults were given a certain amount of liberty as children, and asks why so many modern parents are convinced that the threat to their own children is somehow dramatically greater than it had been in the 1960s or 70s or 80s
Skenazy's stories of overprotective parenting are pretty hilarious and ridiculous: adults denouncing their neighbours for allowing their children to play, in their own fenced yards, without supervision! She describes parents who are positively convinced that any adult who talks to their child wants to rape them - in one story a man managed to rescue a drowning child, only to be screamed at by the child's mother who presumed he was a paedophile! Here she describes a strange case where two girls were playing tennis and one of them was hit with a tennis ball in the eye; her parents promptly sued the other girl and the school.
I don't have the foggiest idea if unsupervised play by children is really good for them in terms of reducing risk and giving them long-term benefits, but it was definitely a whole lot of fun. Back in my tiny school we used to play football in a rough field surrounded by chain link fence, and whenever someone kicked the ball over this fence they would rush to wriggle under the fence and race after the ball. Because the school was at the top of a long slope, if we didn't get the ball quickly it was going to accelerate for a few hundred metres. I don't remember if we were allowed to sneak under the fence and chase the ball down the road or not, but if this was forbidden it was flouted practically every day!
Various childhood projects included building hazel bows (with bamboo arrows - nail jammed in the top - all highly ineffective!), lighting fires with a magnifying glass on sunny days, building booby traps for anyone who dared enter our various dens, exploring the crumbling ruins of an abandoned ghost village, ransacking the woods and farms for things to burn on Bonfire Night, hacking a turnip open with a kitchen knife to make the Irish equivalent of Halloween pumpkin heads. And we had a pretty restricted childhood compared with some of my peers! I remember one proud classmate turning up to school with an arm in a cast because his brothers had thrown him down a hill for fun!
So we accumulated scratches and bruises but overwhelmingly weren't abducted and raped. It does seem oddly unhealthy to fill children with a dread for strangers. Skenazy now has a TV show in which she meets families who over-protect their children. She writes:
BUT from what I saw in filming my World’s Worst Mom (a.k.a. World’s Worst Mum, a.k.a. Bubble Wrap Kids) show, was that the thing that REALLY changed nervous parents was when I physically made them stay home while I took the kids out and let them DO something on their own. When I let them set up a lemonade stand down the street, out of sight of their worried mom. Or when I let them play in the woods, or go to the playground, or go on an overnight. I’d videotape them for a bit and then let them actually BE on their own. But in the meantime, I’d bring that video back to the parents. And when they saw with their own eyes how HAPPY their kids were and how normal and ridiculously NON-TERRIFYING the whole scene was — how it reminded them of their OWN childhoods — in 12 out of 13 episodes, the parents changed. They couldn’t help themselves. They felt the proverbial pride and joy at watching their kids live in and love the world.