Scottish Daily Mail

Mums who let chil­dren of seven walk alone to school

‘Hands-off’ par­ent­ing is sud­denly back in vogue. But does it foster in­de­pen­dence — or just put chil­dren at risk?

- by Lau­ren Lib­bert Child Health · Society · Bullying · Lifestyle · Family · Parenting · Goldman Sachs Group · Iceland · London · Austria · belinda · Belarus · Somalia · Belgium · Fun (band) · Baildon · University of Kent

AS Soon as she was seven, Iso­bel Gold­man was al­lowed to walk the ten min­utes to her school bus stop alone, cross­ing two mi­nor roads and one main road with­out any parental su­per­vi­sion.

Iso­bel, now ten, is also al­lowed to go with friends to the woods near where she lives in north Lon­don and take her eightyear-old brother Ja­cob with her, pro­vided they are back home at an agreed time, usu­ally within the hour.

Their mother Belinda Gold­man, 47, is nei­ther too busy nor too lazy to ac­com­pany her chil­dren, but in­stead sub­scribes to the phi­los­o­phy known as ‘free-range par­ent­ing’, which be­lieves that free­dom to play out­doors and travel alone fos­ters in­de­pen­dence.

‘I was never a pan­icky mum and al­ways felt scep­ti­cal of hy­per-cau­tious ad­vice, get­ting rid of my stair­gates quickly and teach­ing my chil­dren to come down on their bot­tom,’ says Belinda, a so­lic­i­tor, who had a free-range child­hood her­self.

‘I’ve al­ways felt chil­dren are ro­bust and have to learn to as­sess risk them­selves.’

Belinda’s ‘hands-off’ ap­proach means that she trusts Ja­cob to cy­cle the mile and a quar­ter to school ahead of her, leav­ing him to cross roads on his bike out of her eye­line so that when she ar­rives at the school, he is of­ten al­ready in class.

‘I’ve been teach­ing them road safety since they were lit­tle and will al­ways ac­com­pany them a few times to make sure they’re ready to do it alone.’

The chil­dren are dab hands in the kitchen, too, of­ten rustling up a break­fast of toast and scram­bled eggs, hav­ing been taught the rudi­ments of cook­ing by Belinda. Sharp knives and hot pans hold no fear for them.

‘We’ve be­come over-pro­tec­tive of our chil­dren,’ says Belinda.

‘I have a strict rou­tine at home and am dis­ci­plined at making sure Iso­bel and Ja­cob do their home­work and go to bed at a cer­tain time. But that doesn’t take away from the fact I want them to learn to nav­i­gate the world. I don’t be­lieve in keep­ing them on a short leash. I want them to ex­pe­ri­ence as much free­dom as pos­si­ble.

‘Iso­bel is proud of what she can do on her own and so is Ja­cob. They feel con­fi­dent making de­ci­sions and trust their own judg­ment far more than other chil­dren they know.’

Belinda is part of a grow­ing world­wide move­ment of peo­ple who be­lieve to­day’s ‘he­li­copter par­ents’ panic need­lessly about ev­ery pos­si­ble dan­ger and are de­priv­ing their chil­dren of an in­de­pen­dent, ad­ven­tur­ous child­hood.

Lenore Ske­nazy, a mother of two who caused con­tro­versy in 2007 by let­ting her nineyear-old son Izzy ride the sub­way alone in new york, is the founder of the free-range move­ment in amer­ica and her in­ter­net blog, freerangek­, has had more than half-a-mil­lion hits per month, many of them, she claims, from this side of the pond.

Michelle Thorne is one of those Bri­tish dis­ci­ples.

The 40-year-old mother-of-three chose to live in the ru­ral vil­lage of Bail­don in West york­shire so she could raise her three ad­ven­ture­seek­ing boys — Do­minic, nine, alexan­der, seven and Mathew, six — as free-range chil­dren, al­low­ing them to play in the woods and stream at the back of their house where they can be out of sight for hours.

‘I’ll give them some­thing to eat then off they’ll go on an ad­ven­ture,’ says Michelle, who runs her own Pr busi­ness. ‘I know where they are even if I can’t see them. In­evitably, they’ll come back soak­ing wet and filthy but hav­ing had loads of fun.’

Do­minic has walked to school on his own since he was seven and none of the boys do play dates; in­stead Michelle lets them visit friends within a half-mile of home and asks them to be in at 5.30pm for tea. ‘Some­times, their par­ents will call to let me know they’re there, but I’m not wor­ried,’ says Michelle.

‘as a free-range par­ent, I’m con­stantly as­sess­ing the risk and be­lieve you have to give your chil­dren their free­dom bit by bit — oth­er­wise how are they go­ing to de­velop into trust­wor­thy teenagers?’

While Michelle may be lib­eral with their free time, she will dis­ci­pline her boys if they abuse her trust.

‘When they break some­thing in the house, they have to earn money to get it fixed, and if they’re late home, I’ll cut play­time short the next time, ex­plain­ing they have to earn my trust back,’ she says.

her hus­band, David, 46, a char­tered sur­veyor, like her wants their boys to grow into re­spon­si­ble men.

‘our boys are con­fi­dent, in­de­pen­dent and al­ready making good judg­ments,’ says Michelle. ‘I’m not go­ing to closet my chil­dren on the ba­sis of a worst-case sce­nario.

‘I’m more wor­ried about what they’re watch­ing on youTube than any­thing in the woods.’

Dr el­lie Lee, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre For Par­ent­ing Cul­ture Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of kent, points out Michelle’s type of par­ent­ing is not new. ‘Free-range par­ent­ing is ac­tu­ally what used to be called ‘bring­ing up kids’ — it was just kids play­ing with­out their mum and dad around,’ says Dr Lee. ‘But nowa­days, be­ing a he­li­copter par­ent and “cot­ton wool­ing” your chil­dren is cul­tur­ally sanc­tioned, and if you don’t do it, you’re per­ceived to be a bad par­ent. Ul­ti­mately, we’re be­com­ing so riska­verse we’re re­strict­ing free­dom.’

Cer­tainly, par­ents who are known to leave their chil­dren with­out su­per­vi­sion can ex­pect fierce crit­i­cism. Singer rachel Stevens was re­cently lam­basted for leav­ing her 18-mon­thold and four-year-old in the car while she ran some er­rands.

But are there lim­its to the free­dom you can give a child? Can a sev­enyear-old really be trusted to cross the street safely? Is this too much in­de­pen­dence too soon?

While in this coun­try there is no le­gal age when a child can be left alone, the nSPCC does ad­vise that un­der-12s should not be left at home alone for long pe­ri­ods. Child psy­chol­o­gist Dr richard Woolf­son be­lieves young chil­dren can be eas­ily dis­tracted and don’t have the skills to eval­u­ate all forms of risk.

‘If you give chil­dren too much re­spon­si­bil­ity too early they may feel un­com­fort­able and dis­ori­en­tated and their self-es­teem could suf­fer,’ he says. ‘eight or ten year-olds need par­ents to help and sup­port them. a par­ent’s job is to guide and en­cour­age, not take a com­plete step back.’

While he too harps back to the good old days where chil­dren played out on the streets, he ad­mits so­ci­ety has changed. ‘The level of ab­duc­tions may not have al­tered sig­nif­i­cantly over the years but in the past there were fewer cars in the street,’ he says, adding that the risk of ex­ploita­tion has in­creased tremen­dously with the on­set of so­cial me­dia.

‘Chil­dren can be be­friended on­line and en­cour­aged to make con­tact out­side the home. Th­ese are dan­gers we can­not ig­nore. We don’t have to hover over them but we shouldn’t let them roam free ei­ther — there needs to be a mid­dle ground.’

WhILe Samia Dar, 38, doesn’t let her chil­dren play alone where she lives in es­sex, she prac­tises free-range par­ent­ing in a slightly dif­fer­ent way, em­pow­er­ing her chil­dren by al­low­ing them to make their own de­ci­sions.

her son hashim, 11, chooses his own bed­time and study time, and her daugh­ter Ma­lika, five, and son haseeb, four, de­cide ev­ery­thing from the clothes they wear and what they eat for tea to the toys they buy.

‘In­stead of nag­ging hashim about home­work, I tell him when he does it is up to him and I will be look­ing at his re­port at the end of each term,’ says Samia, an ac­coun­tant mar­ried to harun, 40, a so­lic­i­tor.

‘I some­times see him do­ing it at 11pm the night be­fore it’s due but I stay tight-lipped; the con­se­quences are his.’ She does the same with her younger chil­dren, al­low­ing them to choose what they eat for sup­per, even if it means hav­ing to pre­pare three meals. It might be a has­sle, she ad­mits, but she doesn’t have to con­tend with daily bat­tles over food.

The con­se­quences of Samia’s par­ent­ing are, she be­lieves, con­fi­dent, as­sertive chil­dren.

‘I don’t want sheep — I want shep­herds; a child who doesn’t wait for some­one to tell them what to do.

‘ev­ery hu­man has an in­stinct — even a new­born knows when it’s full and will stop drink­ing — all you have to do is de­velop that.

‘I’ll take my lit­tle ones to the toy shop, give them a limit of £5 and let them choose what they want, even if it’s some­thing I know is use­less or will break. If they don’t enjoy it, they’ll know to spend their money bet­ter next time.’

While ad­mirable in some re­spects, Dr Woolf­son is scep­ti­cal about this hands-off ap­proach.

‘It’s good to en­cour­age de­ci­sion­mak­ing, but there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween con­sult­ing with your child and let­ting them de­cide ev­ery­thing they do,’ he says.

‘Some chil­dren are too young to han­dle it and isn’t that what we, as par­ents, are meant to do?’

So the ar­gu­ment rages on. as adults, we tend to learn through our er­rors, but a mis­take for a child left to cross a road alone could cost them their life.

With free­dom comes the risk of a heavy price tag — and it is not one any par­ent will want to pay.

 ?? Pic­ture: JULI­ETTE NEEL ?? Free spir­its: Belinda Gold­man with her chil­dren Iso­bel and Ja­cob
Pic­ture: JULI­ETTE NEEL Free spir­its: Belinda Gold­man with her chil­dren Iso­bel and Ja­cob

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