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?
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, freerangekids.com, 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.