Readers — England has been in a tizzy about a Free-Range family since last week. A family I support!
Free-Range in London: What’s a Reasonable Bike Ride for a Kid? By Jennifer Howze
Once you want a nice suburban-type neighborhood in which to raise your kids (but you still want to be in London), you move to Dulwich, so the thinking goes. This picturesque, sedate enclave looks like a little village that’s been landscaped with money, but last week it was the center of a debate about how much freedom parents should allow their children.
Oliver and Gillian Schonrock allow their 8-year-old and 5-year-old to cycle on their own a mile to school every morning. Both the school and other parents raised concerns and there were threats of calling social services on the couple. The newspapers picked up the story and it has became a heated topic for discussion among parents, on parenting blogs and in forums in the UK all week. (At my daughter’s end-of-school assembly last Wednesday, the headmaster’s speech included a tongue-in-cheek thanks to parents “for not sending their 5 and 8 year olds to school on bicycles”.)
Even the London mayor Boris Johnson jumped into the fray, giving a full-throated endorsement to the Schonrocks for bucking the “nanny state” and “elf and safety” (aka health and safety) busybodies. “In this age of air-bagged, mollycoddled, infantilised over-regulation it can make my spirits soar to discover that out there in the maquis of modern Britain there is still some freedom fighter who is putting up resistance against the encroachments of the state,” he wrote in the Telegraph newspaper.
“Their vision of urban life is profoundly attractive – a city so well policed, and with so strong a sense of community, that children can walk or cycle on their own to school. Instead of hounding the Schonrocks we should be doing everything we can to make their dream come true – in every part of the city.”
A lot of the debate amounts to parsing the risks of the Schonrocks’ arrangement: Is it a good idea? Is it fair to make an 8-year-old supervise a 5-year-old? Is the couple simply trying to make a point and using their children to do it?
Complicating this situation are all the extenuating circumstances. A mile does seem far in London, even a family-oriented part of it. While the children rode on the sidewalk and crossed one street with a crossing guard, many people raised concerns about the heavy morning traffic and the “Chelsea tractors” (the 4x4s beloved of parents everywhere) that pose a danger to all bicyclists.
And here’s another thing, one of parents’ worst fears: Two years ago in Dulwich a man tried to abduct an 11-year-old off the street, writes Dulwich Divorcee, a well-known London-based blogger. Just a few months ago, in the nearby neighbourhood of Wandsworth (where I live), another 11-year-old was grabbed by a man before escaping. (Police have released a description of the suspect.)
“However much we pretend we’re in a village cut off from the troubles of urban life, we Dulwich residents are as much subject to bonkers drivers, perverts, traffic jams, accidents and stress as anyone else in London,” the Dulwich Divorcee writes.
These are all valid points in this debate and I can’t say I know the answer. My daughter, aged 6, seems too young to cycle four blocks to school on her own, but that’s as much to do with her shakiness on a bike and our congested streets as anything else. (In London, many of the two-way streets are only wide enough for one car, making jockeying for position and squeezing past other vehicles a regular part of driving.)
Still, the Schonrocks say they took the risks into consideration and decided that their children are mature enough to handle them. The couple want to engender confidence and street smarts in their kids. That’s their decision.
What I find chilling is the idea that a school or fellow parents will, in effect, call in the cops (or civil functionaries) to police choices they disagree with. There’s no indication that the Schonrocks are neglectful parents. So is the threat of social services based on justifiable fear, or fear that we are somehow complicit if those kids discover that the world is not a 100% safe place?
We all have our own level of Free-Range comfort. (I’m making an effort to get comfortable with my daughter safely roaming.) What became clear this past week in London is that, when other people’s comfort level doesn’t match our own, just what others will do to bring it all into line. — J.H.