Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Let Them Roam

'Free-Range Kids'. I don't know about anybody else, but to me the term sounds slightly sinister. I can't help thinking of chickens, piglets and lambs skipping their heedless lives out in sunlit pastures while waiting for their hideous -if humane -end on someone's table. Of course, if you've read Jonathan Safran Foer's book, Eating Animals, you'll take my romantic notion about what `free-range' means with a sack of salt. But this is not about food.

I first heard the term `free-range kids' a month or so ago, when I was resentfully wiping off cycle chain grease from my hands. I had driven my son and his cycle to his friend's place. (I have been resigned for some time now to driving him around if I wanted him to have any friends at all.) Though these friends stay reasonably close by, I didn't consider it safe for him to cycle there by himself. Hence my annoyance at having to chauffeur the kid and his mode of transport around.

I was also being contrary. ``When I was young,'' I began, aware that I was sounding like every detestable adult I knew when I was a kid, ``we didn't have our parents hovering over us all the time and telling us to be careful.'' My friend nodded sympathetically, and handed me a rag on which to wipe my greasy hands. Then he threw out the phrases ``helicopter parent'' and ``free-range kids.'' And he told me about the concept.

It's the title of a book by American writer Lenore Skenazy. The term describes her approach to a specific kind of hands-off parenting. Working on the premise that the world is no more dangerous than it was when we were growing up, Skenazy suggests that what has changed is our perception of it as being less safe for children than it actually is. This is how she let her son be a free-range kid: she left him -then a nine-year-old -at Bloomingdales, gave him money and told him to take the subway back home. Alone. America was horrified. Other parents thought she was being irresponsible.

It is true that we allow our children less space than we ourselves had. In 2008, in an article in the Daily Mail titled `How children lost the right to roam in four generations', David Derbyshire wrote about the members of one family in Sheffield in the UK. He discovered that in 1926, while the oldest member of the family, then age eight, was allowed to walk six miles to go fishing, the youngest member, in 2007, also eight, was only allowed out 300 yards without supervision.

In my time, I would have cycled the distance I had driven my son, but I wouldn't and still won't -let him do the same. He goes for music lessons to a place nearby and I drive him there and back.

Could I bring myself to let my son walk to his music lesson, allowing him to take the time out to explore his surroundings -which, for what it's worth, consists of overflowing drains, potholes, traffic and a few shops along a very busy main road -and become a confident and self-reliant child in the process?

I suspect not. I certainly want him to become a self-reliant young person, but sending him out alone to walk or cycle on Hyderabad roads is more likely to turn him into a gibbering wreck of a human being.

I could be wrong. I suspect I am. What if I taught him to take buses, to ask for and remember directions, to use a public phone? What better way to teach him to live in a city than to allow him to navigate it on his own instead of protecting him from it as if it were a temporary residence we'd leave behind us some day?

Suspicion and fear take root easily enough. The ways in which cities have changed are evidence of it -gated communities, extra security and the ghettoisation of once-mixed localities. Anyone who makes a case for resisting this tendency to fear everything in order to be safe is worth listening to. Besides, I don't want to be a helicopter parent.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


Sheetal said...

very very true! We roamed further than kids do these days - we took RTC buses to school, walked back home sometimes. My father, in his childhood, roamed even further. In contrast, I know friends who won't let their children play in the play area in their apartment block without supervision.
Of course there are dangers, but is keeping them that close the way to deal?
Also, blanket dos and don'ts for parenting everywhere. playground permissions at 10. Facebook permissions at 12. Whatever happened to treating each individual child like his or her personality dictates?

Banno said...

It's a very, very difficult decision. I took the BEST bus to school when I was 10, with my younger sister in tow, in an already crowded area of Mumbai. Later in Pune, we cycled everywhere in town, from Camp to City to Deccan to University. But .... we are still paranoid when Dhanno takes a rickshaw alone. Perhaps cities have become more unmanageable, crowded. We are lucky that in the Village, she can roam around, pretty much on her own, at least until 9 pm.

Space Bar said...

Sheetal: "Whatever happened to treating each individual child like his or her personality dictates?" Hooray, and yes, totally agree. But *do* parents have blanket permission dates for things? I didn't know.

Banno: It's probably true that cities have become more unmanageable but I think we're also more paranoid than we used to be. I can't imagine how I communicated fear to the kid, but yesterday, in a book shop, he panicked when he couldn't find me. That's tragic, no?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

The western articles I read on this emphasised that things are in fact much safer for children than 30 years ago, and blamed tabloid-inspired paranoia for the parental restraints on children. Any idea about the safety situation in India compared to 30 years ago? Certainly traffic is worse (but, paradoxically, crowded roads, being slower-moving, may be safer). But what about crime? And I don't think our media is to blame, though I may be wrong...

I see lots of kids cycling to school every day -- just very few kids whose parents are likely to own a car.

Space Bar said...

Rahul: I'm not sure there are safety studies about children in India. Whatever one gleans is all anecdotal. You're probably right, the media doesn't do as much scare-mongering as in the West - especially about food etc.

And yes, many children travel on buses, in autos and cycle rickshaws. It's only a certain kind of school where kids come in their own cars.

km said...

but yesterday, in a book shop, he panicked when he couldn't find me.

Tragic indeed. To be separated from one's parent in a bookstore for at least an hour should made mandatory after the age of seven :)

//Took my first solo long-distance bus journey - a nerve-wracking distance of 100 miles - at the age of 12. I tell you, Charles Lindbergh has *nothing* on me.

Space Bar said...

km: I was two rows away. :D