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.

FREEDOM WITHOUT TEARS: A ROUGH AND READY GUIDE

GOING OUT ALONE

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.

SHOPPING

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.

SLEEPOVERS

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.

EAR PIERCING

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

ALCOHOL/DRUGS/SEX

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.

TELEVISION

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

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