Monday 4 August 2008
Deborah Orr: We are infected by our own anxiety
I remember my brother's fifth birthday as if it were yesterday. It was great for both of us because it was the day from which my parents – considered by us at the time to be impossibly strict and protective – allowed him to go out to play without adult supervision, as long as I was with him.
I think that, on that day alone, we did all of the things that so many children now are banned from – apart from playing conkers, which always seemed a bit tedious anyway. That no great harm came to us was more by luck than judgement. We fell out of trees, we smashed our heads, we got into fights, and we even had the occasional encounter with flashers.
Once, my brother fell off an old moped that local children had managed to coax into action, and ended up with a back injury that laid him out for three weeks. But the freedom was wonderful and in order to protect it, we never, ever told our parents just how hairy things could get, out in the world of kids.
I do want my own children to experience a certain degree of freedom. I'm not as strict as many parents appear from this survey to be. They both climb trees whenever they want to – within reason – even though one of them is six. He has a huge graze on his arm right now – he fell out of a tree at the weekend. He is justifiably proud of his impressive wound. But I'm by no means as generous as my own parents were. It is cars more than anything that worry me – and that's why I'd guess so many people are wary of letting their children out alone on bikes.
Looking back, I can see that it was a wrench for our parents, giving us free rein, and that they had to force themselves to step back and let us go. That makes me wonder if perhaps parents now aren't being more selfish than my own parents were, in protecting our children so much.
Are we worried only about our children's safety, or are we infected by anxiety about how we might feel if our child was injured?
Even broken bones during childhood – and come to think of it, I had my share – are rather exciting. You forget the pain, but you remember the hospital visits, the time off school, the fuss made of you, and the short time it took to recover. And yes, the gratifying depth of parental anguish is a sight to behold as well.
Maybe it is our own anguish we want to avoid nowadays, as much as it is our children's. By protecting them we protect ourselves.
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