Park Life: A long walk on a short leash

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The Independent Culture
THE DAYS are stretching, summer is just around the corner, and the school holidays are upon us: soon, the boys will be disappearing to the park all day, 11-year-old Tom in charge and eight-year-old Darcy tagging along behind him, where they'll link up with a crowd of friends on their bikes, or play endless games of football, or simply sit idly on the swings swapping rude jokes.

If only this were the case. But few of our children live like that any more; their right to roam has been taken away from them, they are prisoners living under more-or-less comfortable house arrest, with occasional excursions under strict supervision.

As parents, we're too frightened of the potential threats out there to operate an open-door policy - beyond the front door lurks danger, whether from busy roads, paedophiles hiding in the bushes, or psychiatric patients thrown out of their hospitals.

Tom, tall for his age and able to pass for a young teenager, has an inflated idea of his own maturity. He is obsessed with seeing films rated 12 or even, when he thinks I'm particularly dozy, 15.

Recently, he insisted on upgrading his pocket money to an "allowance", promising that he would pay for any stationery or music equipment he needed (although he back-tracked promptly when a cello string broke and he discovered it would cost pounds 20 to replace: I was a bit shocked, too). He rails against the phoniness of the adult world, a premature Holden Caulfield, while at the same time he can't wait to be an adult himself.

But he has not the least desire to walk through the front door on his own, and even complains that "It's against the law" if I threaten to pop out to the corner shop for 10 minutes, leaving him alone in the house. Like long-term prisoners, children become institutionalised in their own homes; they don't feel safe unless there is an adult present, so they neither miss nor demand their freedom.

The other day, Tom found himself following directions to a post office, on foot and alone in a strange part of London. It was only a 10-minute walk, and he was not frightened in the least, but he was certainly thrilled in much the same way I was when I became briefly separated from the rest of my party during a holiday in the Golden Triangle area of northern Thailand. I must admit I was surprised at how completely we had sheltered Tom from the world - but I still found myself suggesting that perhaps it would be better if he didn't tell his mother about his adventure, because she might think it was a bit risky.

In this respect, at least, things must have been so much easier for my own mother. I can't remember the first time I went up to the local swings on my own, presumably because it was no big deal, but it must have been soon after I started at school. All the children who lived nearby would drift along almost every day if it wasn't raining, the older ones in theory looking out for their younger siblings.

Of course our parents worried: we all learnt how to cross roads, but the occasional child was knocked down; there were regular "stranger danger" campaigns, and we were warned never to accept sweets, or lifts in cars. But the alternative - to prevent children from leaving the house in the first place - was simply not an option.

One day, I wandered up to the swings with my younger sister Jane, and wandered home again, unthinking, without her. My mother spent the rest of the afternoon looking for her, in a steadily rising panic. Jane, meanwhile, spent the afternoon gathering apples in a friend's garden which backed on to the swings, hidden behind a fence.

On the whole, though, nobody seemed to worry too much where we went. Our only real boundary was the main road which bisected the town, and pretty soon our territory expanded to take in the enormous building sites that were sprouting the housing estates of the 1960s' suburban expansion. During the holidays, we would "help" the builders by passing them bricks, and cadge rides on the dumper trucks or steam rollers; at weekends, when no one was there, we would race our bikes round the muddy roads, scamper up the scaffolding or build ourselves hideaways in the vast piles of bricks that littered the site.

These days, building sites are considered too dangerous even for adults unless they are wearing hard hats and protective shoes, and are secured by high wire fences and snarling dogs over the weekend.

It's useless to hark after the sort of freedom I enjoyed from an early age, because we no longer trust each other enough. If Tom and Darcy wandered up to the park on their own, there would be no one else there to hang out with.

But I never dreamed that I would have to cajole my own children out of the front door and into the world.