What price freedom for your children?

They need their independence, but parents need to know they're safe. Lucy Hodges, who has a 12-year-old daughter, talks to parents about fear and roaming

Three-year-old Rosie Palmer had gone out to buy an ice-lolly when she was abducted and murdered by a disturbed and violent psychopath. She was only yards from home - on familiar territory - yet she was unsafe. Her tragic death raises questions about how much autonomy we should give our offspring in today's world.

Being a parent was probably never easy, but in the late 20th century it is positively nerve-wracking. Just as we're bombarded with TV images of the good life, so are our children. Sweets, ice-lollies, drugs, Armani jeans - they want them.

If they've been saving up their pocket money, they can probably afford it, too. They want to go shopping. They want to go to sleepover parties, watch movies, drink alcohol, pig out on junk food, have their ears pierced, their navels pierced, and their ears pierced a second time.

It is a far cry from the Fifties or even the much-maligned Sixties. What do we do in an age when unforeseen dangers seem to lurk round every corner?

The answer, of course, is that there is no single prescription. The issues differ according to the children's ages, where you live, and your tolerance levels. "At the end of the day, you hang on to your seat, cross your fingers and hope for the best," says Rachel Pullen-Dunn, who lives in the Essex countryside and whose two children have now left school for university.

"I think the most important thing is to try to strike a balance between control and being realistic. Communicating with your children is the most important thing. I know that if you say, `No, you can't do that', they will just do it. It is better to negotiate so that everybody thinks they have won and emerges satisfied."

The Pullen-Dunns faced different problems with their son than with their daughter. The son had won a scholarship to a private day school in London and was living with his grandmother during the week. "He started to do what he wanted," says his mother. "It was quite difficult to control things from afar."

When he was 15 his parents realised alcohol was playing quite a part in his life. He would drink with friends in their homes in north London or in pubs, or buy alcohol in off-licences.

The son didn't talk to them about what he was doing, so the parents didn't know what was going on. Mrs Pullen-Dunn took to talking to him in the car, on the way to and from the station, because it was less threatening than eyeballing him over the dinner table.

By contrast, their daughter was very talkative. She went to school locally, had a social life and friends but did not cause them the same angst. Both offspring have been extremely successful academically and the family is a happy one. Rachel believes her son's alcohol consumption is now under control.

With younger children the issues are different, though techniques of negotiation and communication are as important. One difficulty we parents face is that other parents don't think the same way and anyway our children seize their freedom before we have time to say "Yes" or "No" or "Maybe".

I experienced this with my 12-year-old daughter, who went off to Oxford Street in London with a group of friends and, I believed, a mother chaperoning them. It turned out the four 12-year-old girls were dropped off in Oxford Street and spent hours wandering around, trying on lurid-coloured nail polish in Miss Selfridge, buying a bikini, body spray and, in my daughter's case, a whole new outfit of microscopic mini-skirt and T-shirt with saved- up pocket money.

It was a successful trip. The children loved it, pronouncing everything "cool". The new outfit looked good and I was relieved not to have had to undergo the rigours of shopping for it myself but it shocked me slightly that she had done it.

Once children are negotiating public transport to and from secondary school, it is, of course, inconsistent to deny them the pleasures of Oxford Street shopping, I now realise. By the time they are 40, they will see it our way - a nasty, crowded street with an array of tatty shops. For now they are a magnet made all the more shiny without grown-ups there moaning.

But the costs can be high. Rebecca Brussels' son is 15. He has been robbed in broad daylight several times on the way to and from school, and once at Highbury and Islington station in London on his way back from Oxford Street, when a gang of boys snatched a brand new pair of Armani jeans. Stories like these persuade families to leave London in search of safer neighbourhoods.

This was one reason why Elizabeth Macdonald moved out of New Cross in south London for the leafier stretches of north Norfolk. "You have to give your children as much autonomy as you can," she says. "If you can't give them the freedom they want, you have to explain why."

Elizabeth has two sons, aged 13 and 10. The younger one was given freedom to go out alone later than his brother because he was so hopeless at crossing roads and knowing on which side of the road to ride his bike. Both are given their own patches where it is agreed they may roam. "I think boys need a territory," she says. "They need to feel they can go off on their own and survive and come back. They have their own secret thoughts and fantasies about doing heroics, and they can't do those things when you're with them."

The older boy has girlfriends and wants a disco in the village hall for his 14th birthday, but his parents have said no. He's too young, and anyway they can't face it. Instead, he's been offered a long walk with his male friends and a picnic or a beach barbecue for a mixed group.

Some parents allow children out in the street on their own at a young age; others don't. All seem to agree you should wait for your children to ask and not force freedom on them. Hermione Ball, of Finsbury Park, north London, lets her daughters, aged eight and five, walk to the corner shop to fetch items of shopping because they love it and it gives them autonomy.

By contrast, Anne Harding, who lives in Slough, won't let her seven-year- old son out on his own. "He is too little and vulnerable," she says. "Anyone could con him." It all depends on the child and the neighbourhood when you begin to let go. The only thing that remains a constant is the worry when you do it.

The names in this article have been changed.



Wait for the children to ask. Make sure they know how to cross roads. Give them prescribed territory: you may walk or bike to the corner shop and back, or round the park, but not down the arcades. If it helps your angst, teach them to phone before setting out and once they have arrived. Again if it helps, fetch them from their destination after dark in winter.


Once you have let them out on their own, it is only a matter of time before they want to shop till they drop. Negotiate the ground rules, eg you may shop at the local parade on your own but in a group at the shopping centre. When they are old enough, you may want to give them an allowance to shop for clothes on their own. It saves you time and stress.


You don't have to have sleepovers if you don't want them. If you do, you can negotiate on bedtime, and check out with the children by saying goodnight and switching off the lights.


Say "No" if the thought appals you. Negotiate a date in the dim and distant future when you think ear piercing might be tolerable.


Most European families give teenagers the odd drink on special occasions. If you're worried your offspring are engaged in regular under-age drinking, talk about the risks. Ditto drugs. If you're anxious about unwanted pregnancy, give them information about contraception.


Set rules you can enforce, eg no TV before or after a certain hour, or only so many hours a day.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

    Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

    Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

    £30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

    UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention