Set children free by trusting adults

Oliver and Gillian Schonrock have inspired a heated debate this week about how much independence children should have. The couple from south London have been allowing their eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to cycle one mile unsupervised from their home to school.

Alleyn’s Junior School raised concerns about the parents allowing their children to travel unsupervised. The headmaster, Mark O’Donnell, told a Sunday newspaper that the school was under obligation to consider the children’s safety. ‘If a school feels a child in their care is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to notify the local authority’, he said.

In a follow-up statement, the school said that they had not actually reported the parents to the local authority, but added: ‘Both children are below the nine-years-of-age threshold currently recommended by the local authority (Southwark Council) for crossing the road independently. Moreover, Bikeability, the government-approved, cycle-training organisation, itself does not recognise a child’s ability to cycle unsupervised and independently until they are over 11 years of age.’

Earlier this week, I was invited by BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show to defend Oliver and Gillian Schonrock. I was debating Rebecca Andrews, a former police officer and author of Policing Innocence: Is Your Child Really Safe? Andrews’ concern was that by allowing the children to carry out a daily ‘routine’ without supervision, the Schonrocks were putting them at risk of being targeted by paedophiles. Apparently, this is what the McCanns – whose daughter Madeleine disappeared after being left alone at a Portuguese holiday resort in 2007 – were guilty of. Andrews argued that just as you shouldn’t leave your handbag on the seat of your car – increasing the risk of the car being broken into – you shouldn’t allow your children to come under the radar of potential paedophiles.

To me, Andrews’ position is absurd and alarmist. If anyone is irresponsible here, it is not the Schonrocks for giving their children more freedom and responsibility, but the likes of Andrews for promoting such a negative message about other adults. As I argue in my recent book Reclaiming Childhood, today’s ‘stranger danger’ panic could create a hostile – and, as a result, a more dangerous – world for children.

Of course, children shouldn’t grow up naive to the dangers of the world, but neither should we encourage the current generation to grow up fearing other adults. Strangers can play an important role in looking out for other people’s children.

As a child, I remember being given specific instructions about never getting into strangers’ cars, and being particularly wary of strange men offering sweets in return for following them somewhere. We didn’t know anybody who this had happened to, but we took the stern and specific warning to heart. Other than that, we would expect adults – whether we knew them or not – to be there for us, and to help out if we ever got into trouble. Today we seem to expect the worst of people.

As a consequence there is an assumption that adults will not look out for children. On one discussion board, a mother asked: ‘What if the child fell off her bike? Who would pick her up out of the road? What if there was a more serious accident?’

I am far more worried about the presumption that strangers would not step in to help than any possible small risk posed to the Schonrock children as they cycle to school (almost entirely on the pavement rather than the road, as it happens). It is precisely because of the paedophile panic that many would think twice about helping out. I would not hesitate to check whether a child who had fallen off his or her bike needed help, but a lone male would be less likely to do so. This is not because he wouldn’t care, but because of the fear of being suspected of having sinister motives.

Andrews, if a little eccentric, is far from a lone voice warning about the risk from strangers. But, in relation to the Schonrock case, most people have raised concern about traffic rather than the danger of abduction.

In a particularly odious piece in the Daily Telegraph (a paper that has on the whole published pieces in defence of the Schonrocks) one author wrote: ‘Waving off your babies to play in the traffic, and hoping they’ll survive on their wits is lazy, negligent and naive.’ Apparently, allowing children to travel to school unsupervised is tantamount to ‘chucking them into the sea with no life jacket’. The author asked what the mother of these children could be doing that was more important than ensuring the safety of her kids: ‘Who would she blame if her son was run over?’ Herself, no doubt. Just like any parent who tragically loses a child is likely to blame themselves. But that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to wrap children in cotton wool.

It is understandable that parents worry about traffic, as roads are dangerous places, and children need to appreciate that cars can kill. But we cannot completely insulate our children from traffic. The car is the main form of transport for the majority of people, and there is a lot more traffic on the roads today than there was three decades ago. So children need to learn to cross the road. The age at which they should be allowed to negotiate traffic on their own will vary from child to child, and it is for parents to decide when their children are ready to do so. It is not necessarily an easy decision to make. But parents also need to weigh up the danger of insulating children from traffic and not allowing them to become sufficiently ‘streetwise’ when it comes to crossing the road on their own.

Only two or three decades ago, nobody batted an eyelid on seeing five-year-olds cycling with older siblings unaccompanied by adults. Nor indeed were people taken aback by eight-year-olds being left in charge of their younger siblings. My sisters and I regularly looked after our younger brothers at that age.

Things have changed, particularly in the UK. The much-quoted study One False Move shows a dramatic decrease in children’s independent mobility over the period of two decades. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven- and eight-year-old children in England were allowed to travel to school on their own; in 1990 the figure was only nine per cent. Figures from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) show that the proportion of primary-school children who walked or cycled to school unaccompanied was as low as five per cent in 2006.

It was because they wanted to ‘recreate the simple freedom of our childhood’ that the Schonrocks decided to let their children make their own way to school. ‘We are trying to let them enjoy their lives and teach them a little bit about the risks of life’, said Oliver Schonrock.

Good on them! We need more parents like the Schonrocks, who are prepared to go against the grain and give their children more freedom and responsibility. But more than anything, we need people to speak out against all the doom-mongers who would have the Schonrocks believe that they are feckless and irresponsible and that the world is full of dangerous people with sinister motives.

Ultimately, parents will give children the independence they need only if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not harming but looking out for other people’s children.

First published on spiked, 8 July 2010