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The dangers of protectiveness

Marinka wrote recently about her dilemma regarding whether to allow her 13 year old daughter to ride the subway by herself in NYC, and the comments were fascinating. Strong emergent themes included: “I base my decisions on whether or not I could live with myself if I let child do something and something goes wrong” and “The world is very unsafe, so PROTECT YOUR KIDS MAMA.”

It’s hard to argue with protectiveness as an ideal. It’s so nurturing and mother bear-ish and nobody is likely go around shouting “No! Expose your kids to hazard! More peril, more!”

It’s clear that there are a number of things that children need to be protected from (particularly the under-5 set who I am most familiar with). Nonetheless it raises questions about when protectiveness fails as a strategy, and whether (or not) it is considered in its short-term benefits as well as in the long-term repercussions.

Perhaps it’s the influence of being raised by a very anxious mother, or that I simply reached a tipping point of trauma; ultimately at some point my hope for the next generation changed from wanting to shelter them from life’s blows to wanting to teach them how to roll with the punches.

What frightens me more than news stories of terrorism and paedophiles are the young people without essential life and problem solving skills, who are used to letting others do the majority of their thinking for them and who would most likely panic and freeze in situations of peril.

It is easy to feel in the current climate that there’s a terrorist or mugger, kidnapper or sex-offender waiting behind every tree simply waiting to swoop down on our offspring the moment our back is turned.* That the only way to ensure continuous well-being of all is with unceasing vigilance and smartly clipped wings.

Two aspects of protectiveness terrify me: when it’s done to the extent that children’s opportunities are significantly curtailed and when it means that young people wind up unable to fend for themselves as soon as they hit University (or when they start acting wild and unleashed, which greatly increases the chances that they will be seriously hurt).

Life skills that I would hope to instill in my children by the time they hit secondary school:
- Street smarts and basic street sense. (E.g. being aware of their surroundings, keeping valuables out of sight, travelling in groups when possible, ducking into shops if they feel uncomfortable).

- Ability to read a map. (This can be tricky – my own map reading is poor, but I can find my way around a city; also by the time they are in secondary school I’m sure children’s use of navigational software will be mainstream).

- Use own thinking to solve problems (with help and coaching from parents; this can be done in the form of games to ask them to find their way out of various problem scenarios)

- Start demonstrating ability to assess risk (If you were in situation X, what are the things that you would be worried about? What do you think you could do to make things more safe? Etc.)

- Ability to plan, prepare and cook a simple meal and clean up after.

- I think basic self-defence is also a good idea, I would strongly encourage it but not insist.

Talk of danger makes me worried that in our focus on sex offenders and maniacs other, more likely hazards are being missed out. (Chances of a stranger abducting a child are very small; most missing children are runaways, most acts of sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members or someone else well known to the person. On the other hand, chances of a young person getting hurt if they aren’t smart about how they drink and who with, and how they get home are very very high indeed).

I don’t think it is possible to teach sense of problem-solving, sense of awareness, independent thinking unless young people are permitted to venture out on their own. I am not suggesting leaving them on the side of the highway with a £2 coin and a wave; rather it’s about teaching them a particular set of skills that will serve them well in the long term. Raising them to be smart, independent, capable young people who can think for themselves and explore the world around them; who can start acquiring and building the skills they will need to keep themselves safe.

I am very much a Free Range parent by inclination (even though I just misspelled that as both Free Rage and Forage; those are true also. I’m quite the Free Rage parent, particularly in the mornings when Matei is refusing to put on his school uniform).

In Montenegro Matei has a lot of freedom in his comings and goings (within reason). He can go around the houses of the others in the village (if we know who they are, and if he says where he is going). He can explore things on ground level (climbing and exploration of roofs is strictly forbidden unless there is an adult present). He can go down the village path (as long as he stops at the woods). He can go along the beach and swim (as long as the waves are not too strong). He loves this, he prospers in this. Although he is not a naturally obedient child and boundaries need to be reinforced (very strongly sometimes, with loss of freedoms) as a strategy this seems to work well and each year he comes back with a wonderful tan, many stories of his adventures and with an increased ability to fend for himself.

And that is not laziness, or neglect. It is a gift.

*This is a variant on how my mother felt when my cousin went off trekking in Himalayas with a bunch of his friends. “But there are snow leopards in the Himalayas!” she cried horrified and no amount of saying that they were rare, that poor BBC documentary makes would camp out in the snow for months in the hopes of securing a shot – none of this made the slightest dent in her belief that they were hiding behind every tree to do away with my cousin. He came back alive, no leopards were seen and everyone still feels as justified in their view points.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
I have little to add to my hearty agreement, except I like the idea of being a Forage parent. Mind you, as Charles has taken to making me cups of milk if he thinks I might be thirsty, I might be well on the way there.
Nov. 9th, 2011 08:09 am (UTC)
I think it would be awesome to start a Forage movement. Teaching them at an early age to ply us with biscuits and then sending them out when they are more grown to seek out edible plants and misshapen bread the bakeries will throw out.
Nov. 8th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
I agree with this wholeheartedly, but would never let a five year old or under out of my sight; or one under 10 go further than shouting distance. Too many near misses in my lifetime or my children's to let go that far ...
Nov. 9th, 2011 07:48 am (UTC)
I wouldn't let an under 5 be anywhere without adult supervision, although in Montenegro this means that I might not be the supervising adult. This isn't as straightforward in London of course - it's not a village, I don't know my neighbours and my neighbours are not necessarily happy to watch a gang of roving children.

Would you be happy to let a 9 year old walk to school by themselves? Or happy for them to go out with a known group of friends?

(Just curious)
Nov. 9th, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC)
Tricky to answer this one. We live in a small village, so in many respects it is very safe. People are watching over our kids from afar, a lot of the time. However, we live on a busy, fast road, and until they are 11 (deemed old enough to judge traffic speeds) I won't let them walk to school alone. But I will let them walk some of the way from about 9, or to the shop, say - as long as I am there for the busy road bit.
Nov. 8th, 2011 11:18 pm (UTC)
But how would you live with yourself if snow leopard got them!

Yes, I love free-range in principle, I don't know if the Modern-Child problem has to do with people being suddenly hysterical, probably more lack of relative 'safe space' for children to freerange? I live on busy road, without quiet spaces for kids to play around...and playgrounds are like 10 min walks away, instead of being natural part of every block like thet were in Russia. I do want my kids to learn to be independent, but I am also sad they are unlikely to have childhoods like I had - growing up in village during summers where I could be loose exploring world and swim in rivers unsupervised (but makes you think how much more drowning incidents, if things were that way? 'Modern Kids' just go to swimming classes). J had none of that 'free range childhood', but he's no worse off than me. Also I heard that in UK, statistically, road accidents are highest with 3-4 year olds - which some people interpret have to do with parents getting too confident with their kids being on pavement...(really need to dig out the link). In London you can teach kids to be navigational-smart, just by growing up there - hence the term 'country pumpkins' getting hopelessly lost.

Is it a question of them never-ever becoming street-smart or at later age than in olde times?

I was one of those who entered uni without knowing how to laundry and knowing what the heck the basil and oreganos were. That had to be quickly rectified, of course...
Nov. 9th, 2011 08:07 am (UTC)
But how would you live with yourself if snow leopard got them!

One of my favourite bits from The Spider Truces is a conversation between protective father and his 17year old son who wants to go interrailing.

Father: "But I'm terrified that something will happen to you if you go!"
Son: "I'm terrified nothing will happen to me if I don't go!"

I grew up in a capital city (again relatively busy roads and some very busy intersections) and I remember walking home from school by myself as an under 10 (not sure when I started, probably at age 8, definately by 9) and walking several blocks to the nearest park to hang out and play with my friends (around age 8) and then walking home again at unspecified time (but before dark). I was also long before then roving around our apartment building, visiting familiar neighbours (with or without children) who were very happy to feed me juice and biscuits and chat with me and let me watch films. (One of my favourites was a granny with mobility issues - I think she enjoyed the company).

I never simply took off though - and never alone.I would be where I said I would be, and to go further afield I would notify my parents first. In Montenegro I and a gang of others would sometimes go for long walks (up to a mile) by ourselves, but we knew what to watch out for (snakes) and we felt safe.

I think you actively need to teach children how to read maps, how to navigate, what are the signs of danger to watch out for. Matei is almost four - I wouldn't let him anywhere near a road by himself, but I no longer need to hold his hand when we walk (he will stop at a crossing and wait for me) and when we cross roads we practise the (stop, look, listen) and I ask him questions about where does he reckon is the best place to cross the road? Where most dangerous? Why does he think that? etc. And at some point (don't know when, but I espect between the ages of 7 and 10) I expect he will be sensible enough, that he will have demonstrated sufficient proficiency to me that I will be able to let him begin doing some journeys himself (whether to school, or to the shop to get bread and milk etc.)

I think it's useful to know how to do laundry and cook before you go and live independently. But it is not a significant hazard not to do so, because the learning curve is not dangerous so much as shrunken in the wash or inedible. I really worry about the number of 18 year olds exhibiting absolutely stupid behaviour that makes them really easy prey.

(E.g. Last time I was on a night out, waiting for a bus I saw a car pull up in front of two drunk girls saying that he was a minicab and would they like a lift home? The two idiots agreed and got in, and perhaps he was well-intentioned or perhaps he was a smart rapist. More than one sexual assault has taken place that way. Or girls getting drunk and not thinking about safety - is there a friend nearby who can keep them sensible? If they are bladdered, is the guy they are with going to stop if they want him to? Are they flashing their valuables around? Have they got lost and ended up in a dodgy part of town after dark? Have they worked out a strategy for what they will do if someone tries to rob them? etc).
Nov. 9th, 2011 06:46 pm (UTC)
Very thoughtful and I love your list (and the website is interesting!) I wish this were a regular blog and I could share this post with others!
Nov. 9th, 2011 09:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you. :)

What has your experience been with your daughter? Has she been clamouring for independence, or is she more happy to follow you around?

(My Leo is more peaceful than my Capricorn, although I think the way this is going minor dictators would be more peaceful than my Capricorn).
Nov. 15th, 2011 12:29 am (UTC)
She is definitely the more clingy, sheltered type. Not ridiculously so, but yeah.
Nov. 9th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)
This is such an empowering post! Will H have the same freedoms as M in Montenegro? (Am guessing yes, but many parents I know allocate freedoms by gender.)
Nov. 9th, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
In principle H will have the same freedoms as M because they're more age and ability dependent than decided by gender. It's actually quite likely she might have more freedoms because she is so far showing herself to be a far more reasonable child and can be trusted more than he can.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


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