I saw a wonderful sight the other day, while walking the dog on some waste land on the ''wrong'' side of Kipsala. Three children - all boys - of about 7 or 8 years old (the same age as those I teach) were playing on a piece of waste ground attempting to open an old can of paint with a rock. What is so great about that? I hear people ask. Well it is a reminder that Latvia, despite the headlines on the front page of Friday's Diena (Bridinajums vecakiem) has a long way to go before it reaches the same state of paranoia as my country, England.
It reminded me of an article I had read earlier in the summer about a research project undertaken by The Children’s Society, the Good Childhood Inquiry, into what was happening to Britain’s children and what was important for them. One of the main findings of the study was that children feel, and are, too restricted in their freedoms, with an ideal example being the fact that a majority of parents felt that children should not be able to play with their friends without adult supervision until the age of 14. Another would be the fact that children are increasingly restricted to their own gardens, and not allowed to walk to the local park, to school, or to their friends’ homes (articles here and here). It would sadden me immensely to see Latvia go down the same road.
Children need time to be children – I doubt anyone would disagree with this. If their parents will not give them opportunities to play with their friends, to walk to the park, to take responsibility for themselves, how are they ever going to learn which risks are safe to take? Let us return to the three boys in the wasteland on Kipsala. Assuming they were not intending to use the paint they retrieved to distill into some horrid designer drug for injection straight into their hearts, what are the dangers they face? At the very slim end of the spectrum, there are of course the pedophiles and child rapists, but statistically, they are in more danger of child abuse within the family home. More likely is an attempted jump from too high, a scraped knee, a sore hand, or even a broken ankle. Not particularly life-threatening and very instructive for the children, who start to grow that awareness of personal risk and safety that we all carry around with us. Consider instead, the child who has been kept safely wrapped in cotton wool his entire life until the age of 15. When he goes out to explore the world without the restraints of parental supervision, the sort of early opportunities for risk taking he will face are far more dangerous (car theft, drugs, alcohol, unsafe sex), and his ability to make independent decisions weaker.
Of even more concern to me, as someone who works with children of that age, is how it affects the children’s social life. Some children are kept at home with the TV and computer, and enough has been written about the dangers of that for me not to need to add more. Other parents consider that every second of their child’s day should be filled with improving activities – ballet, choir, singing lessons, swimming, music, then home for a few minutes before bed. The latter group, like the first, often do immeasurable damage (albeit from the best of intentions) to their children, who have difficulty forming relationships (they’ve never had to, after all) and thus become open to bullying, exploitation and unbalanced relationships. The lucky ones are allowed to play with their friends under very light supervision, get to run with others in gardens or parks (or in the case of a child I know, in the parking lot of an apartment building). These children are, often, the nicest to teach and the ones other children like to spend time with.
I am not suggesting that Diena is wrong to advise parents to know what their children are up to at all times. I am sitting with my four-year-old close by and know I would do much to keep him safe. Nor is it necessarily wrong to make a range of activities available to your children. But all parents should remember this: our children need time to be small people. Children who play with their friends, who fight, who build fantasy worlds together are, like those young men on Kipsala, doing all the things that we want our children to do as adults. They are forming relationships, building confidence, assessing risks, working cooperatively and making decisions. They are busy being children practising their future role as part of a community of people – and they need that opportunity.