Busybodies ruining health of our free-range children


OPINION: Thanks to irrational fears about strangers and accidents, we've created an epidemic of obese, scared children, writes Victoria White 

I LET MY nine-year-old get the bus home from school on his own this year. Am I Ireland's worst Mammy? Lenore Skenazy was called "America's worst Mom" across the US national airwaves when she let her nine-year-old ride the subway on his own in New York this year.

But then surely the New York subway is more dangerous than Dublin's 11 bus? And Skenazy compounded her error by letting her child work out which subway to get.

Which was all a far cry from my own ace parenting. My child had an envelope with instructions written on it - "Get the 11 or the 11A. Sit beside the driver. Get off two stops later and cross at the pedestrian crossing" - and the exact change for the ticket within.

But it wasn't good enough. The day after what we shall call "the incident", two people approached me and asked me what had led me to do it. Another, out of genuine kindness, offered to go out of his way to drive him home in future.

What could have happened to him on the bus in Dublin 14, downstairs and in broad daylight? There could have been no one else on the bus. The driver could have diverted the double-decker into a back alley and had his wicked way with my son.

I was ranting away like this when a friend said her main worry would have been that he could have got off at the wrong stop. But he travels this road twice a day. He was on the bus for two stops. If he had got up after three stops, I think he would just have walked back.

It is my great fortune that he is bright and able-bodied. So I had no worries about him. Well, actually, I stood in the middle of the road outside the house so that I would see him as soon as he started coming up the road. Meanwhile the little ones inside free-ranged around the house. They probably made a cup of tea.

But I knew he was able for the trip and I knew he needed the independence. And, because I had three other children and he wanted to play chess after school, I needed his independence too.

Have we become more paranoid than the Americans? We're getting there, and surely for the same reasons. Increasing distrust of each other. Increasing breakdown of communities. Increasing class division.

I remember how amazed my American friends were when I got the Greyhound bus. Amongst all the comments about speed and comfort lurked a fact that I think bothered them more: I had been sitting beside black people.

And you can't be sure who you'll sit beside on the number 11. Nowadays, they could even be black too.

This paranoia is enabled by the motor car. If Mammy or Nanny is prepared to do little else but spend long years of her life driving in ever increasing circles, the children need hardly ever meet anyone from a different background. Mammy or Nanny might have had higher aspirations for herself after 40 years of feminism. But it's worth it to keep the kids safe.

Except that it doesn't keep them safe. It makes them sick. We talk about childhood obesity as an "epidemic" as if a rat carried it ashore from a ship, but we created it.

Our concept of danger is other people. And because of that, we are a danger to ourselves.

There is nothing rational about our fear. We consider cars safe and bikes dangerous, for instance, and it is true that the risk of personal injury is much higher on a bike. But the health benefits are massive.

For every one year of life that a person loses to cycling, 20 are gained. It is safer to cycle to work without a helmet than to drive.

Just last week my nine-year-old fell off his bike and made a dent in his helmet that I'm very, very glad was not in his head. I will not let my children cycle without helmets if I can help it. However, once I picked a younger boy up from school for an urgent remedial appointment and discovered he had lost his helmet. I made a risk assessment, put him on a tag-along attached to my bike, and he cycled bare-headed.

A taxi-driver leaned out of his car and bellowed at me: "You're a very irresponsible parent!" I was so busy screaming back that my child nearly missed his appointment, which was not very intelligent. But I still maintain that the child's risk of injury from missing the appointment was a multiple of his risk of injury from the cycle.

There are the facts, rehearsed in the features page of this newspaper last week, that cyclists wearing helmets take more risks and are given three inches less space by cars. There is the more compelling fact that in countries where cycling is popular helmets are not, and the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.

But the fact remains that I exposed my child to a risk. The question is this, however: why is that risk, and even the virtually risk-free act of sending my child home on the bus, invigilated by society, while massive risks to which we expose our children are ignored? Risks like the virtual end of oil by the time they are middle-aged, for which we have barely even begun to prepare. Or the threat to the future of humanity on this planet from climate change of which the UN warned last year, which our consumerist, privatised lifestyle brings closer every day. These risks can only be addressed by the kind of working communities in which paranoid parenting would have no place.

Lenore Skenazy may be "America's worst Mom" but her Free Range Kids website asks a burning question: "Isn't it wrong to teach kids that they are incapable of taking care of themselves, that they can't trust their community, and that it is better for them to live a virtual life inside, where life is programmed, than a real life outside, where they can glory in the wonders of the world?"