parents

"I lost my six-year old over the weekend. But I wasn't worried."

Shauna Anderson and her kids at home.

I lost my six-year old over the weekend. I saw him playing in the front garden then next thing I knew there was no sign of him.

I looked up and down my street and the only evidence was his scooter awkwardly straddling a flowerbed further up.

I asked my two-year-old daughter who just shrugged and went back to pulling books off the shelf.

No sign of him.

I called my nearest neighbour – had she seen him? No.

I tried another – she said she had briefly seen him hooting and hollering as he rode past.

Was I worried? Not really.

Should I have been?

I finally tracked him down on the third phone call – he was happily swimming in a neighbour’s pool.

Now I have noticed one of two reactions to this. The first? People are ready to condemn my irresponsible parenting.

The second?

Those who smile at the thought that that’s how things were when WE WERE KIDS.

For or against?

You see it turns out that my street is unusual in that we let out kids roam up and down and into each other’s houses.

It has been pointed out (with one of those grimaced smiles) that this lack of pre-ordained play dates and supervised play is frowned upon in other areas. That it is “unusual” and that “mothers these days were usually more careful”.

There’s even talk of children on my street “running wild”.

Yes, seriously. “Running wild.”

Is that what you think? Is it irresponsible of me to let my children “roam” the neighborhood?

Is it careless to let them knock on friends’ doors and ask if they can come out to play?

To let them build cubby houses out of branches on the side of the street and play with random boys and girls of all ages? To let them ride their bikes in gangs along the footpaths? To let them have impromptu dinners of sausages and white bread by the side of a neighbour’s pool? To let them fall into bed exhausted after a day of unplanned, (partly) unsupervised play?

Because I think it’s delightful.

Judge if you wish.

So it was with relief that I read an article in the UK Independent calling for a return to the “golden days of play”.

The author, Dr Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology writes of his childhood – in the 1950’s in the US, where:

We went to school, but it wasn’t the big deal it is today. School days were six hours long, but (in primary school) we had half-hour recesses in the morning and afternoon, and an hour at lunch. Teachers may or may not have watched us, from a distance, but if they did, they rarely intervened. We wrestled on the school grounds, climbed trees in the adjacent woods, played with knives and had snowball wars in winter – none of which would be allowed today at any state-run school I know of.

He cites a correlation between increasingly structured leisure time for children and mental health.

Consider this, he writes, “over the past 50 to 60 years, we have been continuously decreasing the opportunities for our own children to play. School became more onerous, as breaks were reduced, homework piled up… Outside school, adult-directed sports (which are not truly play) began to replace impromptu games (which are play). Children began to take classes out of school, rather than pursue hobbies on their own. ‘Play dates’, with adults present, replaced unsupervised neighbourhood play, and adults began to feel it was their duty to intervene rather than let children solve their own problems.”

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Lenore Skenazy and her son

In 2008 an international phenomenon was created when a New York mother let her 9-year-old son catch the subway home alone (and then wrote about it for the New York Sun.) Lenore Skenazy’s decision became the subject of international debate – and fueled several books, a TV show and a whole way of parenting titled “free range parenting”.

But why is letting my six-year-old son walk safely up a suburban cul-de-sac where I know all the neighbours controversial?

Because he might be snatched? (In Australia there is a 0.00137% chance of being murdered… that statistic includes adults and children.)

Because he might walk across a driveway when a car is coming out? (Yes, but he knows to look up and down when he crosses a driveway.)

Because he might fall down and break a limb? (But he could do that with me there, too.)

I know there are risks. But I think there are more risks to never giving him responsibility, to allowing him to be pampered and structured and over-scheduled and stuck inside glued to a screen.

I think there are some risks we have to take as parents.

Dr Peter Gray blames “a constellation of social factors, including the spread of parents’ fears, the rise of experts who are continuously warning us about dangers, the decline of cohesive neighbourhoods and the rise of.. the view that children learn more from teachers and other adult directors than they do from one another” for a decline in children’s play opportunities.

But he says it is to our detriment, citing that rates of clinically significant depression and anxiety in US schoolchildren are now five to eight times what they were in the 1950s.

He says that, as a society, our empathy is declining and our narcissism increasing, and he links this directly to over-closeted childhoods.

Let’s let our kids be kids.

In the UK there is a current push to increase the school day – the Gray rails against the thought of this – “No, our children don’t need more school. They need more play. If we care about our children and future generations, we must reverse the horrid trend that has been occurring over the past half century. We must give childhood back to children.”

I wonder if part of the problem lies with us as parents. We fear what others will think if we let our children play unsupervised. We worry about imposing on others if we knock on their doors unannounced to ask if Charlie can come out to play.

With school back this week and a return to the daily drudge of homework and structured activities, let’s make sure we also let our kids be kids – and play.

Don’t call me careless for letting my sons knock on your door.

They just want to play. Will you play too?

Do you think that letting kids roam on the street is irresponsible? How much freedom do you give your kids? How much did you have as a child?

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