Childhood Freedom…

January 19, 2012 9 Comments
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Sarah Hall on the changing trends in children’s literature:

My six-year-old daughter is reading Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister and Bad Harry and something is puzzling her. Her brow furrows as she points to the text:

“Bad Harry lived quite near to us. There were no roads to cross to get to his house, and he and my sister often went round to visit each other without any grown-up person having to take them.”

We already know that the narrator is a “little girl” and her sister is “littler”: from the dialogue and her behaviour with Bad Harry, she’s clearly three at most. “How can she do that? Why can’t I do that?” asks my daughter. Then she offers her own reply. “Children can’t do that these days, can they?”

Wise words indeed…

Watching her enjoy these books – and ask why she can’t walk to school alone like Milly-Molly-Mandy, or play by herself in the street like My Naughty Little Sister – has made me question whether she loves them precisely because of her more restricted lifestyle.

Well, don’t we all read to see what life is like for others? What strange sorts of worlds have faded into the past?

Like many modern parents I suspect I am overprotective – a trait compounded by having covered stories such as the Soham murders and the murder of Sarah Payne as a former Guardian news reporter.

I’d have thought covering them might have had a temporary effect, but not a permanent one, given how rare these cases actually are…

And I’m not unique in being concerned: a survey conducted in June by the charity Play England, part of the National Children’s Bureau, found that only 40% of children play outside today, compared with 72% of their parents.

And how much did your reporting contribute to this?

Swallows and Amazons, Alice in Wonderland and Narnia may be some way off. But, with a taste for freedom – and, now, a touch of danger – I might have to steel myself for a run of Enid Blyton.

Ooooh! Now, don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ll be drummed out of the ‘Guardian’ circle for that!

But…she isn’t wrong, is she? Children were indeed accorded much, much more freedom in the past. Are we better for restricting that, or worse? I think I know where I’d hang my hat…

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9 Responses to Childhood Freedom…

  1. ivan
    January 19, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Not only are children over protected today but they, and the places they live, are over sterilised.

    The over protection leads to teens running wild because they suddenly have the freedom to do so without the knowledge of freedom.

    The over sterilised environment means that the growing immune system does not know how to react to any of the ‘bugs’ out in the real world – hence all the asthma and other complaints we are seeing in the young.

  2. Tattyfalarr
    January 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    And how much did your reporting contribute to this?

    Valid point. My mam refutes that “suspecting a paedophile on every corner” is an over-reaction saying that they’ve always been around it’s just that back then parents weren’t constantly bombarded with info on the subject. She was taught a few important lessons on keeping herself safe, house rules on meal-times etc then let out in daylight hours to enjoy being a kid. She taught me, I taught mine…you get the picture.

    That said, I’ve never really been that worried about what another adult will do to my children. It’s what another childis capable of and will be allowed to do that bothers me. Since I don’t see the media concentrating much on *that* and it’s based on experience I teach my own lessons. Which, I guess, is pretty much as it should be.

  3. January 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    It’s funny how she picks on the odd rare occurrence of a child murder to justify being over protective.

    Streets are very different now compared to life in the times those books were set. Teaching children road safety should be a never ending task for a parent.

    The children in those books were probably at risk from nothing more than a pony and trap.

    • January 20, 2012 at 5:37 am

      Good point. And yet, kids today seem to have even less road sense!

      • January 20, 2012 at 7:25 am

        That’s because we now blame every incident on the motorist. You can’t single out children for fines and denormalisation.
        Lazy parenting, lazy policing and keerchiing!

  4. January 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    In a not particularly wild childhood, I came home soaked after the raft my friends and I had built broke up on the half-mile deep waters of an abandoned clay pit and (with the aid of a young friend) fought off the local tramp who stole my bike. I played in the wreckage of an old factory, including climbing in and out of the rusting body of an old locomotive. Every morning of the school holidays I left the house after breakfast and stayed out all day on my bike, looking up any school friends who weren’t away and doing whatever took our fancy. I walked home alone from school from day two (at four years old) and would have been scorned by the other boys if my Mum had come to fetch me. I was warned about the local paedophile (told to steer clear of him as he might hurt me) and alerted to another oddball living nearby who went on to murder his mum and dad with an axe. The only harm I came to (apart from grazed knees, cuts and a soaking or two) none at all.

    The absurd mollycoddling of modern children is not just parental choice though. If your middle class kid *did* go astray, the police would involve the gloriously mis-named “Social Services” who would have them adopted by some socialist weirdo before you could say “freedom.” The other bogeymen may be laughable, but the gangster state is not.

    • Mudplugger
      January 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Mine was very similar. Key difference then was that, as a young child in the 1950s, I was told that if ever I had a problem away from home, just ask an adult for help and they will solve it – and in practice they did. That meant that every local adult was part of an unofficial support network for every local kid, so kids could safely be ‘let loose’ to learn and grow as nature intended.

      We too were warned about the few local ‘odd-balls’, but everyone else was deemed not only safe, but positively supportive.
      Obviously we broke every ‘silly rule’ our parents imposed (don’t play in the beck, don’t cross the main road, etc) but we did all those with extra awareness that, as we were rule-breaking, we were at even greater risk, so we took even greater care, thus learning lots of skills at once.

      The current paedo-paranoia means that now if I ever see a child in difficulty, I am deterred from giving that same adult assistance for fear of misinterpretation – I will always look around and seek another person to join me in the task for mutual ‘insurance’. And that’s such a sad commentary on the very negative change in only one lifetime.

      • Tattyfalarr
        January 19, 2012 at 11:38 pm

        Key word there: Local.

        In towns now …and I mean not quite rural, not quite inner city, just large town…hardly anyone is “local”.

        It’s getting so that people don’t know who the new next door neighbours are, don’t speak to them and might be lucky to even speak the same language.

        It’s a shame…and, naturally, increases the paranoia.

        • January 20, 2012 at 5:39 am

          Yup! And it’s not helped by the ‘white flight to the country’, either, as once there, they retain their distrust of their fellow man and rarely mingle with the natives.

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