If my parents had raised me the same way now as they did in the 1970s and '80s, I'm sure they would attract the ire of other parents. I had quite a few responsibilities at home as well as a lot of freedom outside of it. I learned how to make lunches, do laundry, walk the dog; and pop down to the shops by the age of seven. My friends and I were regular movie-goers by about eight or nine years. By 10, I took public transport, and by 17 I hitch-hiked around Scotland. I would not trade my freedom for the world.
But children's lives today are less free range, to use a term popularised by American columnist Lenore Skenazy, a recent visitor to Australia, who was roundly condemned two years ago after she let her then nine-year-old son take the New York subway on his own.
I loved my adventures, and feel claustrophobic for children now as the things I enjoyed have now been labelled "unsafe" or "risky". I conducted some research in the Western suburbs of Melbourne in 2008 to find out how parents, local government staff and policy dealt with the risk of children going places on their own. In contrast to my own experiences, 68 per cent of parents did not allow their children to walk or cycle to or from school; even fewer were allowed to go to other places on their own.
While local government staff believed children should be allowed to go places alone, a variety of policies from the local to the international level discourage free ranging and foster controlled activity such as after-school programs and adult-organised sports. Part of the problem is legal liability. One interviewee in my study noted ". . . all it takes is one [incident], you know, and council could be issued with a huge writ. So it's reality and it's something that we need to be mindful of."
While it is easy to blame the media, as many do, for the current state of affairs, I think the situation is more complex and dynamic. The success of media in triggering parental worry is probably because of how we define and view risk. "Risk" in everyday life refers to hazards, chances, probabilities, possibilities, victims, and decision-making or actions that we think are wrong; perhaps more importantly, risk commonly invoked images of terrible consequences.
Media focuses on the worst-case scenarios in which children and their parents experience devastating long-term effects. Unfortunately, policies and professionals provide expert voices that support the media and often use similar methods.
There are basically two simple messages that are promoted by a variety of sources: children are passive, vulnerable "at-risk" victims to an incredible number of hazards; and children will be irreparably damaged if they experience harm. What a way to reinforce parental anxiety! Forget about the variation between children due to different life experiences and abilities, and parents' knowledge of their own children's abilities and personalities – all children are waiting for a traumatic event to happen! These messages seem to target parents' concern that something might happen while feeding worry about the potential consequences.
No sane adult wants his or her child to suffer trauma, but concentrating on negative outcomes is disempowering and unproductive. We cannot control everything and anything. What we can do as parents and as community supporting parents is to help children develop knowledge and skills for interacting in the world. To do this we need to give children some freedom to develop the necessary spatial, physical, psychological, social, and analytical skills required for negotiating their environments.
Talking about potential dangers and how to deal with them is not the same as allowing children to assess and manage potential hazards first hand — just like hitting my thumb with a hammer was very different from my dad's warning, "hold the nail this way; hitting your thumb hurts". We can help children learn how to read their environments by teaching them the art of observing people on trams, how to anticipate cars on the road, creating a repertoire of sentences and actions if they are in a tough situation, or how to select a stranger for help if it is needed. We need to ensure children start amassing a vast library of experiences and skills because one day they will be out in the world on their own whether they have had an apprenticeship or not.
Will the kids of today have the skills to interact with the world to achieve their goals and have primarily positive experiences? In my adult life, I have come across workplace bullies and inappropriate sexual demands; I have wandered around numerous cities and found my way home safely; I have had the confidence to apply for jobs and try new things even though I was scared; I have read rowdy crowds and left before trouble started; and I trusted strangers who helped me when I needed it. I could read my environments because I had a lifetime of training that started when I was very young. Do we really want to take this from our kids?
Essentially, we need to rethink what we mean by risk. For me, risk is a relationship between how we want to use our environment, what the environment offers us, and our ability to use it successfully. I also think risk as a constant trade-off between possible costs and benefits because people are continuously making decisions about what they are doing. Much as I would love to be able to ride a skateboard down a railing, I would end up with a bruised, if not broken body, and a very sheepish ego. However, my friend can do incredible tricks, and if the trick doesn't work, he usually lands on his feet unscathed – he knows how to skateboard and how to fall.
Julie Rudner is a lecturer in the Community Planning and Development Program at La Trobe University, Bendigo campus. La Trobe, in partnership with the University of Wollongong, is part of an international project researching children's independent mobility in Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, and Indonesia, associated with the Policy Studies Institute in the UK.