Tag Archives: free range kids

Peadophiles and panic and parenting, oh my

A few months ago, Bean was in the suddenly-bolt-and-disappear stage: new-found speed and confidence meant that it wasn’t unusual for her to leave my side far more quickly than I could catch her. One day we were in the local chicken shop waiting for our order when she just up and ran out of the store and legged it down the footpath. Coming in the other direction was a man – I would guess he was about sixty – who very helpfully put out his arms as if to catch her as she hurtled towards him, which of course made her stop in her tracks to take a better look at this man-sized obstacle. Within seconds I was able to scoop her up, and ensure that she didn’t run out into the carpark. I looked up to express my gratitude to the man, who immediately started to apologise. ‘I wouldn’t have picked her up,’ he hurriedly assured me, ‘I just thought I might slow her down!’ and then then walked off so abruptly that I could barely tell him thank you.

It made me sad: I had assumed he was simply trying to help, and when you have a toddler sprinting right next to a busy carpark, that kind of help can be a matter of life and death. I felt sorry for this man who seemed so kind, that he would fear judgement and reprisals for showing interest in the welfare of a little girl.

He’s not the only one. My father in law, a man in his sixties, has a ten year old daughter. On a family holiday last summer, his daughter had entered a sand-castle competition and we were all down at the beach enjoying the afternoon. I asked my father in law if he had managed to take any good photos – he’s never far from his camera – and he admitted that he hadn’t taken anything. ‘There are too many other kids here in their bathers,’ he explained ‘if people see an old man like me taking photos, they’ll get upset.’ He’s been questioned before about his ‘interest’ in his own daughter by people who assumed he was someone other than her parent so, unfortunately, his fear of censure wasn’t unfounded.

I completely understand the impulse parents have to protect their children from any potential threat, even an unlikely one. No one is under any obligation to accept help from a stranger, or to allow strangers to talk to our touch their children. But fearing the father at the beach or the man at the shops for no reason other than the fact that they are men? These are not protective, helpful behaviours (unless other sound reasons, even if they are mainly instinctual, give cause for suspicion or alarm). We need to keep our children safe but knee-jerk fear and prejudice does not equal exercising judgement.

I have no doubt that my husband would stop to assist a child in need, and I would hate to think how he would feel if his motives were called into question. But this is not just about lamenting the hurt feelings of decent men – after all, decent people don’t wish to contribute to anxiety or distress and hence many men have become accustomed to keeping their distance from other people’s children. These two stories posted on Free Range Kids both attest to this.

The real losers, when we succumb to ‘peodophile panic’, are not only men in the community, but our children. When my daughter is lost in a shopping centre, or injured at the playground, or in need of the physical reassurance that a hug from an adult can bring whilst away from my care (at school, perhaps), I want the decent people around her to step in. I want someone, anyone kind, whatever their age or gender, to come to her aid. When I was a child my parents could count on that happening: adults were accustomed to watching out for other children, especially in the rural area where I lived. Can I count on it? Perhaps, sometimes, I hope. But the reality is that the number of benign adults willing to interact with children on any level is reducing, and not only because of changing attitudes to children and families but also due to fear of being labelled a ‘pervert’ of some kind. And when kind and trustworthy adults are less likely to intervene? Less likely to consider watching out for all children to be part of their role as a citizen within a community? That leaves children with only their own parents and designated carers – and even perhaps adults who are not so benign – to interact with. It leaves them with fewer meaningful exchanges with people outside of their immediate family and, importantly, it leaves them with less protection. It also potentially leaves parents more isolated, with less help (and, as Arwyn argues so strongly here, we need help!)

If you’re one of the vast majority of human beings who have only good intent towards children and you see my Little Bean heading towards danger and you want to reach out to her to keep her safe? Please, be my guest. She and I will both be grateful.

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The ordinary girl

I’m going to say it: Jessica Watson isn’t so extraordinary.

Okay, so maybe a little. The whole globe-circumnavigation-solo thing is completely amazing, but as someone to whom a trip to the Western suburbs counts as exploring, I can’t even really fathom that. Let alone comment on it.

What I would like to comment on is Watson’s tender age. She’s not yet 17. That a teenager was able to execute such a sailing feat is exciting news not because it proves that she’s an exceptional teenager but rather that she has exceptional adults in her life.

I used to spend a lot of my time around a lot of teenagers. Some of the teens I taught were incredibly clever and sensitive, some were boisterous and impulsive, some were irritating and self-centred. All were capable of understanding complex ideas and of taking on responsibilities — with varying degrees of success. In other words, they were, um, people.

I recall that one of the more difficult aspects of teacher-training for me (and I think, my peers) was learning to approach the young people in my classroom as their superior. Traditional education (that is, the school system), demands that there is “classroom discipline”, requiring that teachers command respect and maintain a certain professional distance from their students. That’s the way to do it in a regular classroom and that’s the way I did it. But wow, those early weeks of learning to say “sit at your desk and listen quietly now please” with authority to people who were at times only five years younger than me, were very difficult. Because I didn’t believe – don’t believe – that I was inherently different to or superior to them. What was between them and me was some education, a few years of life experience, and the authority bestowed on me by largely arbitrary school rules.  (I did get used to it, though, and learned that sometimes professional distance is vitally important as well as convenient, and that when students actually do sit down and listen quietly in an environment where learning is set up to depend upon that kind of formal behaviour, things work much better. And yeah, teenagers are quite capable of learning to sit down and listen without being told but there are most certainly times when it is far more efficient to just tell them already and get to the questions on page 33.)

But the efficiency of educational processes notwithstanding, the reality remains that the stereotype of the surly, irresponsible teenager may say a lot more about adults and our prevailing power structures than it does about young people themselves. So, what is extraordinary about the Jessica Watson story is not so much that a person of that age has displayed great skill, physical endurance, intelligence and courage, but that her parents and presumably other important adults in her life supported her in what certainly seemed like a completely outrageous dream.

When we talk of young people “growing up too fast these days”, we don’t really mean growing into maturity. We mean that they are being exposed to narrow and damaging expectations of gendered behaviour at very young ages. (Behaviours – hyper-sexualised or violent – that we rightfully attribute to the adult realm.) But being exposed to pornified culture isn’t really growing up – or if it is, it is only one facet of growing. Because working in tandem with this increasingly early exposure to certain types of adult content is a decrease in the amount of autonomy and independence that children and teenagers are allowed to enjoy and learn from. In the name of ‘safety’ – and for other social, economic and ideological reasons – we are loathe to trust young people to do almost anything unsupervised. (For more commentary on that phenomenon, Free Range Kids is a good place to start.)

This certainly isn’t all down to parents — I think it’s very clear that parents are actually struggling to deal with the intense expectations placed on our parenting. Certainly, before Jessica Watson set off on her ground-breaking trip, a lot of media commentary slammed her parents as everything from delusional about their daughter’s capabilities to blatantly uncaring for allowing her to risk her life.

She was risking her life (though not recklessly or flippantly). But she was also clear about her reasons for doing so and displayed great determination and courage. That she was two years off voting age didn’t – doesn’t – seem entirely relevant. And I think that’s refreshing.

In today’s Age I read an interesting article about blogging by Steph Bowe, a teenager who is soon to have her first novel published. Melina Marchetta famously wrote the teen novel well-remembered by most in my generation, Looking for Alibrandi, at 16. In fact, very young authors, song writers and activists are at work all of the time.

Even so, it is very difficult for a young person to be taken seriously. This wonderful post by Chally about ‘coming out’ as a teenager says it all really.

I don’t advocate that we stop parenting teens, as if they don’t still have something to learn from their parents (they almost certainly do: most adults could learn a thing or two from more experienced adults too!) And I’m not suggesting that a grand gesture of independence like that made by Jessica Watson is what every young person needs to make. But I do hope that once images of her safe arrival at Sydney Harbour are no longer monopolising the Australian media, that Jessica’s own assertion that she is ‘ordinary’ is remembered. Because ordinary young people deserve the right to try extraordinary things; and sometimes just asking to be judged only on one’s own merits as a human being, is extraordinary.

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What if someone took you?

This afternoon The Bean and I had a lovely time playing in the sunshine in an outer suburban playground with fencing all around. It was a weekday afternoon; only a few parents (mostly mothers) and their toddlers/babies were in attendance.

A little girl – about 2.5 years old – came over to sit on the swing next to us. She was walking about six metres ahead of her mother – who was none too pleased about this state of affairs, as evidenced by the shrill admonishments that followed:

Zoe! Don’t run off! Why were you running ahead of me? You know you shouldn’t do that, don’t you? It’s very naughty, isn’t it? Yes. Very naughty. Don’t do it again. You must stay with mummy. You understand? You must stay with mummy!

What if someone took you?!

Now it would be very easy for me to be smug about this. Hell, my parenting is pretty Free Range compared with hers. And there was absolutely no reason for this mother to imagine that any of the other parents enjoying a sunny afternoon at this park were actually child predators with a big white van waiting around the corner. I feel sorry for that kid, and the fearful person she may grow into.

But I’m not posting this to anonymously shame an anonymous woman I saw at the park. She could well be suffering from an anxiety disorder or post natal depression or have been a victim of child abuse or have an estranged spouse who has threatened to take her child — there could be any number of scenarios I’ve not been privy to that would make her behaviour seem less bizarre.

There is a tension that parents face every day, between wanting to keep our children perfectly safe and allowing them to learn about the world for themselves. I remember when Bean was a few days old, just sitting and crying while I looked at her face as she screamed in hunger and frustration at my breast. I wanted to put her back in my womb where she had been nourished and protected. Always warm, always embraced.

And how do we - those of us who have faced hardships like molestation or neglect or bullying or abuse - learn to trust others to keep our children safer than we ourselves were? How do we do this without causing harm ourselves through our ‘helicopter parenting’?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that most parents could do with a little more kindness and understanding. We live in a world where some people tsk and frown at parents who put their toddler in a harness to keep hir close by in a crowd, and an equal number of people rant and complain at parents who fail to keep a toddler completely quiet in a cafe. In an ideal world we’d all find a happy medium between appropriate supervision and allowing children to develop their own resilience through learning natural consequences, and we’d be supported in that by a child-tolerant society.

But then, in an ideal world, child abduction wouldn’t merely be rare, it would be non existent. In an ideal world our worst fears would be far, far less frightening. And in an ideal world all parents would take their responsibility to protect their children seriously, and would love them.

On that score at least, the woman at the park is doing okay. We have that much in common.

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