Room to roam case study: ‘I was a free-range child’
The Smith family describe the differences between their childhood experiences
Maureen Smith with her son Seán and grandson Noah (12) in Sandymount, Co Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
The Smith family’s respective childhoods reflect the increasingly restrictive environment. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Maureen Smith, 77
Growing up in Farney Park in Sandymount, Dublin 4, the street was Maureen Smith’s playground.
“In winter, I was roller-skating all over the place. There was lots of skipping and then tennis.”
As an 11-year-old, she walked or cycled everywhere. “Traffic was minimal. My father had one of the four cars on the street.”
She cycled to and from Loreto College on St Stephen’s Green, even going home at lunchtime. Without much traffic and with 1½ hours for lunch, it was quicker than taking a bus.
She remembers childhood as a fun time.
“We would go out in the morning without even looking at a clock. It was breakfast – and go. In the summer I would go on the train myself or take my younger brother to my mother’s family in Loughlynn, Co Roscommon. If I was in Dublin, we’d cycle to Dún Laoghaire to go swimming.
“Everything was delivered then, so I’d go down to the shops with the list. It was just round the corner.
“Later, when I was 17 or 18, I would hitchhike to dances in Bray and Dún Laoghaire with my friend Elsie. We never told our parents that we hitched, though.”
Traffic wasn’t an issue. “Mam never worried about us getting run over.”
As for worrying about adults, “I was accosted a few times – just by men who would show you their willies. But it has never blighted my life.”
She left Dublin for Britain when she was 19, got married and later returned with her husband and four children to live with her parents in the same house in Farney Park.
She says she did not not worry about her own children growing up in Sandymount.
“I never worried about traffic and the kids. I never worried about bad people, except for with the girls when they went out for the night. There were no mobile phones in those days, so as a parent you just had to wait for them to come home.
“I suppose I worried more about ‘stranger danger’ than my own parents. We live and lived in a community in Sandymount that is quite close knit, so people would always tell you things. I always knew what was going on. Even my granddaughters know that, ‘Granny knows everything’. Which is no bad thing.”
Seán Smith, 52
Seán arrived in Farney Park in 1970 when his family returned from the UK and he went to two nearby schools : Star of the Sea national school and later Marian College.
School started at 9am and when he wasn’t playing lunchtime soccer, he would walk home in 10 minutes for lunch.
Farney Park was a quiet road.
“We would play soccer, cricket, tennis, rounders and do a bit of chasing. I played with anyone who was around on my street at the time. There were only three families with kids there, but others would drop in.
“My school pals from national school would have been different to my friends from Marian, who came from further afield, so the street was a great place to catch up.”
As for traffic, Seán doesn’t remember it.
“I don’t even remember having to look to crossing the road. We thought Sandymount was a village.”
Nor does he remember “stranger danger” being an issue.
“It wasn’t a problem. Not at that age on the street. My friends all lived in Sandymount when I was 11. I had friends who lived quite close to the beach so we used to go over there and play football.
“When I got a bike at the age of 12, that was when my world expanded. But, no, I wouldn’t let [my son] Noah cycle around now. The traffic is just mental. And small kids on bikes are very hard to see.
“At 11, I was able to walk out my front door and say, ‘I’m going out’. I never had a watch, I’d just go home when I was hungry. The key was always in the door and when the sun went down or when we got hungry, we went in.
“Largely, I was allowed to do stuff on my own without my parents to supervise. There was no one to chauffeur me like there is for Noah. He’s much more regimented and timetabled than I was.
“I was a free-range child. Things have changed and this may be a bad thing, but society has changed. In the area I was roaming about in when I was 11, people knew me. And in those days, a lot of mothers didn’t go out to work, so people knew who was who’s child.
“If you were in trouble you could knock on any door and ask for help. That isn’t the case now. We know fewer people now and fewer people know Noah.”
Noah Smith, 11
At home, he can walk to the Ashleaf Shopping Centre which is about five minutes from his house. He can also go to the nearby supermarket.
“There is a big green in front of my house, so I play there. In the summer holidays, I have to be in by 9pm or 9.30pm and my parents can come out and call me if they need to.”
When he is at his grandmother’s house in Sandymount, he is allowed to walk to the local shop on his own or to the supermarket which is a short distance along the main road.
He has a bicycle but he does not use it very often at the moment.
“If I was on a bike, I would probably ride on the path for most of it.”
Children need to play, he says. “It’s good to make friends out of school.I play a lot of cricket in Pembroke and I play soccer for Manor Town.”
His parents take him to these activities.
He is also aware of “stranger danger”.
“Don’t go with someone you don’t know or you haven’t met before. And I always tell my parents when and where I’m going.”
He’s not exactly sure why, but he knows it is appreciated. “If you go far, you might not know how to get back,” he says.
He has asked his parents for a mobile phone for his 12th birthday.
“Sometimes parents can get worried about you,” he says.
Share your experiences
How does your childhood compare to the those of the Smiths? How far were you allowed to roam as a child? Let us know in the comments below.