Is it caring or neglectful to encourage your seven year old daughter to walk twenty metres from her front door to the school bus stop whilst you stay at home? Is it irresponsible to allow her to cross a road on her own, whether or not the road has little traffic?
Primary school pupil, Isabelle McCullough and her parents made the British newspaper headlines this week after it was revealed that her school had informed social services that they were concerned about her short walk to and from the school bus stop. It’s caused quite a furore: the old ‘health and safety gone mad’ brigade have been out in force, and there’s also quite a lot of ‘when I was a lad’ kind of opinion pieces doing the rounds.
It’s left me arguing in my head about the rights and wrongs of the story. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that Isabelle’s school, and in particular her bus driver, are observant enough to recognise that there might be a threat to her safety. On the other hand I feel nostalgic for my own childhood when I walked all the way to my primary school and back again on my own every day. I can still count the roads, and see the route in my mind’s eye. It was a privilege to be allowed to walk to school independently, even in the (cough) seventies. The journey wasn’t incident or danger-free either: there was the time I took a ‘shortcut’ and ended up in a river. I had to clamber up the bank to get back onto dry land and in the process smothered my school uniform in mud. I remember slinking home thinking I would be in a terrible amount of trouble, having just ruined my clothes and the subsequent feeling of relief when my dad couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of me, dripping from head to toe in silt.
I understand the need to teach your child about responsibility and I agree that we should give children a notion of independence, it makes them feel confident. The important distinction is I was still safe: it wasn’t until I was a teenager my grandma told me that she used to follow me, out of sight, until I got to school safely (or perhaps to make sure I actually went at all).
Is seven years old too young? The NSPCC think so, they say the youngest a child should be out on their own without a responsible adult is eight. But when should a parent take the calculated risk to let their child have a little independence, when they are eight, thirteen, or eighteen? My husband’s mother still insists that we text her when we get home safely from a journey, and he’s thirty nine.
So perhaps, times haven’t really changed all that much, after all.
(first published 15.9.10)