You know it is summer when everyone starts worrying about children not playing outside unsupervised anymore. A report from the Future Foundation says that the average amount for eight- to 10-year-olds playing unsupervised in the summer holidays has fallen from 55 “occasions” in the 1950s and 1960s to 24 now. Cue parental nostalgia for their own unsupervised summer holidays.
I’m amazed by those figures. Who is letting their eight- to 10-year-olds go out alone 24 times during summer? And when would it be convenient to send the social services around?
I had those textbook childhood summers: running around, picking berries, making dens. Think Famous Five, only without the money or the casual racism. All of us went out in the morning and weren’t expected back until … well, you just weren’t expected back, except when driven home by hunger. Some would call it priceless formative freedom, others outright neglect; it didn’t matter because everyone did it.
But that was then and this is now. Children now have far less freedom and much more supervision. The Future Foundation cites reasons such as decline in safe outdoor spaces and the huge rise in traffic. There is also the Fear, looming omnipresent in parental life, which defies all logic. Is children’s loss of freedom a concern? Of course it is. However, children also get more trips and treats, with parents heading for cinemas, pools, theme parks, booking summer camps, or letting them play in the garden, if they have one. Much of this takes money, but still it’s hardly the gloomy childhood gulag of popular lore. Moreover, often it is not the supervision that is the problem – it is the parents.
Whenever people trot out their lists of what children need (security, self-expression, discipline etc), there’s never mention of one of the most important – privacy. Basically, there’s too much parental ego flying around. Modern parents need to learn that it is not all about them, centre-stage, being great hands-on parents. Sometimes, it is about parents butting out. If you’re one of these parents endlessly being “fun”, pathologically making cupcakes, kicking footballs or naffly sitting on the next swing to your child, there’s no polite way to say this – you’re old and boring, increasingly superfluous to playing requirements and your children urgently need you to do one.
My childhood friends and I would have been mortified if one of our parents had turned up at a den patting their knees, saying: “This looks fun! Can I play too?” To reproduce anything close to the freedom children used to enjoy, modern parents need to back off.