The short leash on kids that strangles independence

For a regional city like Ballarat with an abundance of good local primary schools, it might come as a surprise to see the school-side traffic jams which are a regular and often dangerous factor at the drop off and pick up times. Proximity and traffic volumes don’t give much weight to the most common excuses it is too dangerous or far for kids to walk to school alone.

In a city where obesity rates are dangerously high, childhood activity levels are not where they should be and no one would willingly admit to be a helicopter parent, the number of independent children walking or riding to school is dispiritingly low.

But if stranger danger or thunderous arterials are the self-justifying excuses of time-poor parents, one study has highlighted another interesting motivation in this ‘neglect” through over- attention.

Many parents are more concerned at the perception allowing this independence creates among their peers, according to a survey of Victorian parents from the Judith Lumley Centre at La Trobe University. 

In the study, where almost 1800 parents of children aged nine to 15 were interviewed about the social, environmental and other factors that made them think twice about letting their children walk to school alone, or play in the neighbourhood without an adult,  parents were most often concerned about the censorious opinions of other parents, friends and teachers.  

Report author Dr Shannon Bennetts believes allowing children to move around the neighbourhood without an adult was an important source of physical activity and helped children to develop social skills and resilience;  “Surprisingly, many parents told us that they were concerned that family, friends and their children’s teachers would disapprove if they allowed their children to go places without an adult.”

Family characteristics, social and cultural norms were all important factors in promoting this thinking.  But this social norm interestingly shows the fear of what others might fear i.e a general perception that the streets are not safe, can be based as much on an antipathy to judgement at doing what is perceived as reckless or irresponsible rather than a concrete knowledge or experience of that danger itself. In the interest of of defusing the obesity time bomb which any activity will play a vital role in for future generations and giving back some of that independence that is vital to growing up, this is social norm worth questioning.