Holding our children's hands for dear life

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MY 10-year-old has been pestering me to distraction. She wants to go to the local shops on her own. 'It's unfair,' she cried, when I stalled. As the school term dragged to its end, I consulted other parents. They too were being bombarded, and some had capitulated.

Walking to the shops to buy sweets, crisps and stickers - those ghastly shapes that today's children use instead of stamps to swap and barter - has become one of the rites of passage for 10-year-olds. (Last year as part of the business of being nine, it was essential to stay overnight with your best friend.)

With this debate going on at home, my attention was engaged by two reports. One from the Policy Studies Institute, called Children, Transport and the Quality of Life, stated that modern children are in a sad state, forced indoors, restricted and deprived of adventure. One statistic summed up the changes that have occurred since most adults were themselves small. In 1971, 80 per cent of seven- to eight-year-olds walked to school on their own. Now it is 9 per cent.

The second report, from Kidscape, identified that parents' deepest fear was the abduction and assault of a child.

There are two troubling aspects of these new conditions of childhood. First, children are not learning practical skills essential for adult life; how to be streetwise. Second, they are deprived of a modern experience of outdoor adventure - available now only second-hand through children's fiction.

Pondering these reports, I've come to the view that, if anything, they downplay the constraints on modern children. Being a parent today is a nerve- racking business in which you dare not relax.

Take the simple adventure and pleasure of riding a bicycle for fun. Traffic and aggressive driving mean that the outlay on expensive bicycles is wasted. There is nowhere, bar the odd park or bridle path, where children can safely ride them. My 10-year-old's mountain bike, another key status symbol for the age group, languishes in the hall. There is a long cycle-track close to the house, but there is absolutely no question of her riding there alone. I never see children simply riding their bikes up and down here.

When an eight-year-old out on his bike is found murdered in a lift, when a two-year-old toddler is led away to death by older children and when a 16- year-old girl is knifed walking to a friend's house nearby, what on earth are we parents supposed to do, but throw up ever higher fences around our children?

This caution towards the things one cares most about is part and parcel of the way adults are increasingly restricting their lives as well. I never go to bed without setting the downstairs burglar alarm, as intruders broke in one night when I was alone. I don't post a letter after dark or dare to walk home alone from the station.

This is surely why a simple request from a 10-year-old to go shopping alone causes heart-searching, even though at her age, I not only walked to school, but went to the library, roller-skating, cycling and, with friends, even on buses. Perhaps we are treating our children as chattels to be tied down and accounted for, but our motives are good.

The reluctance to let children out alone explains the inexorable rise in computer games, as alternative outdoor thrills disappear. It has also led to the rise of lengthy school runs and co-operation between parents.

But it chafes on children, and who knows what explosions are being stored up for the future. For the very same children who are being corralled at home for their own good are also surprisingly sophisticated. Many 10- year-olds are well-travelled, clued up on the facts of life and raised on a daily dose of Neighbours, which serves up surprisingly strong adult dilemmas.

We are running the risk of turning out children even more vulnerable and unused to their environment than they should be and in the long run we could be disadvantaging them in the race of life by dulling their survival instincts.

As for my daughter, I crossed the Rubicon. Making strawberry jam, I realised at a critical stage that I was two lemons short and I asked her to go to the local shops. As lemons were 18p each I gave her a 50p piece and a lecture about coming home straight away. She came back glowing with pride, bearing three lemons. 'They were 18p, but I asked him to do three for 50p,' she said. Perhaps our children are more streetwise than we give them credit for.