Once upon a time a mother took her sons to a busy, rural playground. The older boy (aged three) played while his baby brother was confined to a pushchair. After a few minutes the little one demanded his mother’s attention and, in giving it to him, she took her eyes off her older boy for about 45 seconds. When she looked up again, he had vanished from sight.
Snatching the baby out of his pushchair, she ran around the playground fruitlessly calling. Realising he wasn’t there, she sprinted down the short hillside to the tree-banked steam in the valley. The little boy was paddling in the knee-deep water, oblivious to the angst he had caused.
Several potential alternative endings to that story make my heart go cold. I was lucky. I had not been attentive enough, and if anything terrible had happened to the Heir, it would have been my own fault. Yes, I stopped watching him for less than a minute, but even a few seconds can be too long.
The Heir is now seven years old and (usually) less prone to running off, but I still struggle to find a balance that allows him and his brother some independence whilst not taking undue risks. How much freedom should, indeed can, we safely allow our children? What risks, if any, should we encourage them to take?
For me there is a distinction between necessary and unnecessary risks. The former are those that we must allow our children to take in order to enable them to grow up independent, physically and emotionally confident and able to thrive in adulthood. On the other hand are unnecessary risks, to which we expose them through carelessness or inattentiveness, or for our own trivial convenience.
Some parents seem just plain stupid and make decisions the rest of us can only shudder at. Take the woman on holiday in Benidorm who allegedly left her nine year old twin boys to find their own way back to their apartment while she went out on the town. Her children survived unharmed (physically at least), but they might easily not have done. In another misjudged case – however much one might sympathise with their sentiment – it is hard to understand the Japanese parents who left their son alone in a bear-inhabited wood as punishment, only to return and find him gone.
However, it isn’t always so clear-cut. Sometimes, an avoidable error of judgement can end in tragedy. Do I believe that Madeleine McCann’s parents were to blame what happened to their daughter? Absolutely not. Would I ever have left my sleeping children in an apartment and gone out for supper in a nearby restaurant? No way in the world. Likewise, is anyone accountable in the horrific July incident where an alligator drowned a toddler as he paddled in a lagoon?
I accept that there will inevitably be situations beyond my control. However, there are many that I can and should influence. I never assume that anyone else, be they friend, grandparent, or lifeguard, has responsibility for my child unless specifically agreed. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I would never, even briefly, leave a sleeping baby unattended in the car. Instead, I scoured the area for “pay at pump” petrol stations and always lugged the unwieldy baby seat into the shop for a pint of milk.
When the Heir was a baby and toddler, I was obsessive when he was eating, never turning my back lest he should choke. At the playground I would be just behind him on the steep steps up to the slide, or begging my husband not to push him too high on the swing. I was sometimes accused of being overprotective and worrying too much, which made me question my judgement as a mother.
As the boys have grown more mature I have been able to adapt my approach, letting them take more risks and be more independent. Ironically, at times I now find myself the victim of other parents’ anxieties about my sons’ adventurousness and my acceptance – even encouragement – of it. I fear that to parents whose approach differs wildly from my own I can appear irresponsible. I can understand this – in our health and safety obsessed society we aren’t exactly encouraged to evaluate and take risks. However, I’m trying my best to stick to the distinction between necessary and unnecessary risks, and it seems to me that some are necessary.
My more relaxed approach is still within limits. I let the boys play out of sight at home, but not in public places, where there is the possibility of undesirables lurking with malicious intent. They may not ride a bike, scooter or pony without a crash helmet, neither do I let them play in or near water without a responsible adult present. These constraints they accept with good grace; others less so. I am extremely concerned about letting them go into public toilets unaccompanied. The Heir, now seven, is especially indignant, but I insist they come into the Ladies with me if their father is not with us. I don’t know what the accepted age for this is, but at the moment I am just not comfortable with it. These things (and many others) are non-negotiable.
Elsewhere, I have learned to be flexible. I allow them to climb trees of their choice, but have taught them how to do so safely, to judge if a tree is suitable for an attempted assault and to ensure they can make their own way back to the ground. In the swimming pool they love nothing better than to be flung high into the air by their father, to come crashing down into the water. I watch mutely with my heart in my mouth, mentally running through all the awful things that could happen.
Yes, I am regularly pushed outside my comfort zone, and the inbuilt maternal obsession with protecting my children from harm. But I cannot, and will not, wrap them up in cotton wool for the sake of soothing my own mind. If I am too protective during childhood, in later life they will be ill equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the world. I applaud campaigners in Canada, whose determination to reintroduce the concept of “risky play” has led to the availability of funding for innovative playground schemes.
Our garden is edged by private woodland, so I am very fortunate to be able to allow the Heir and Spare the freedom to explore in a relatively “safe” environment. It is not quite The Famous Five, but free-ranging across an acre of woodland seems a fair compromise in a world where children need to develop skills for adult life whilst avoiding the unknown but real threats that fill their parents with semi-permanent fear.
When I reflect on their early years, or wonder if at times I am still overprotective, I remember the words of my great aunt, an experienced paediatrician, when I confided my worries. “There is no such thing as overprotective,” she told me. “With all the worst accidents I saw in my professional life, the parents said: ‘But I only took my eyes off them for a second.’”