When good laws go bad: Zealous interpretation of everyday life

Existing laws in Australia can criminalise parents for leaving their kids unattended as this article shows – including letting kids walk to and from school and other places – something I have highlighted in my research.

Three things really get my goat:

1) Criminalisation of parents who are generally doing a good job, who have assessed their own kids as competent, and whose kids able, wanting and willing to take responsibility; and criminalisation of parents who consciously are bringing up their kids to be independent, competent, self-determining people.

2) The idea that there is a magic ‘age’ at which kids can do things by themselves, including being left alone, is being promoted. This magic age seems to be 12 according to the article. Twelve years may present an average based on some research about children’s development from particular fields of study or countries, however, what we take as ‘biological truths’ are not necessarily so. The high level capabilities of kids in other countries to help with work, family, and community responsibilities show far greater maturity and competency than what we expect or allow in Australia.

3) Zealous application of laws aimed to protect kids from the very worse-case scenarios are likely to target people who appear to be lower income earners who do not fulfil middle class parenting ideals, or are less able or likely than middle class parents to hide the gap between moral and expert notions of what should happen and what does happen in trying to negotiate everyday life.

Our values, how we interpret kids’ independence and how laws are implemented stem more from moral, cultural and habitual positions on the ‘right way’ to raise kids. The broader way in which laws are being applied to children being by themselves does not acknowledge the diversity of children’s competence, differing family habits, unevenness of maturity in children’s abilities e.g. kids be immature in some ways and mature in others… The broad blanket approach reinforces the notion that kids are not part of our communities and that parents should be scared and intimidated by conservative cultural values due to the impacts on them and their families.

If these laws are being applied more rigorously now than in the past in Australia, as is happening in the USA,then we should worry. They are premised on a great and deep distrust of ourselves, each other, and people in public space.

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Thanks MK!

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Crossing guards

As I was riding to work today, I stopped for the lollipop woman and teens to cross the road to school. I find this really perplexing… why do high school kids need a crossing guard?

When I looked into a different aspect of high school kid’s lives, I found reputable research from 2008 that indicated 1 in 3 young people in grade ten engaged in oral sex, 1/4 had sexual intercourse, and there was an increase in sexual partners.

I really find it amazing that so many kids can negotiate birth control and condoms, but we don’t trust them to negotiate traffic by themselves.

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Do we really want risk management to determine how we interact?

Australians often have a giggle at the policies, events and the people of the United States. From my perspective some things that occur over there are ridiculous, and I chuckle, more from disbelief than humour.

The risk culture in the US has gotten to the point where some parents are requiring other parents to sign legal waivers of indemnity if they want their children to visit. Parents are being placed in jail and/or cited for child abuse and neglect for letting their children walk to school or go to the park on their own (I’m not talking toddlers, here). Children can no longer enjoy roasting marshmallows or learning how to build campfires at scouts or school camps because many require children to be at least 15m from a campfire on trips.

However, even as we laugh at the inanity of the situation, we are doing the same things here in Australia. Recently, a school in New Jersey, USA banned hugging and other touch between kids, and now we’ve done the same in a Victorian school. Supposedly it is because kids are playing too roughly and children are getting hurt; there were too many school yard accidents.

The older students had a ‘sit-in’ to protest. According to the media, they were reprimanded and informed of appropriate ways to deal with situations. ‘Sit-ins’ and other collective pacifist approaches used for making a strong political point has a long, often respected, and effective history. Frankly, I think the students addressed the silliness of the situation well.

As a nation, society and as individuals, we have a variety of role models to assess and learn from, and innumerable directions we can take to create our future. Why are we choosing to follow in the footsteps of one of the most litigious and paranoid cultures in the world? It can’t be healthy.

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On Thursday 31 May 2012, there was a great article in the Melbourne Herald Sun about children’s play in school yards. Paul Tranter, an academic in Canberra, studied the change in children’s behaviour when they were given ‘loose materials’ for their play. These materials comprised milk crates, pool noodles and car tyres, amongst other things. He found that children co-operate more, children of different ages play more, and there seemed to be less school yard bullying. The results say a lot about the value of providing materials for creative play rather than relying on stock standard prescriptive play equipment.


The other day, I attended a few talks organised by the Victorian Children’s Nature Connection along. It was really great. One speaker discussed planning, another talked about social interaction in neighbourhoods, a children’s author was there… The adults played with sand, leaves, cones and other materials to create things. This event, as well as its location – The Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens (which has a great kids area, in case you haven’t visited yet), reminds me how important it is for kids and adults to get outside and do ‘nothing’. It’s amazing how relaxing it can be. This occasion, like other times I have seen people play at the beach, in the bush, by a river…, was punctuated by laughter, silliness, new ideas, and reflection.


Today I had this great landscape architect, Mary Jeavons , come speak to my uni students. Mary has designed a lot of public spaces and school spaces for both the general public and specifically in relation to children. Two of the most importing ideas I got from today is the need for everyone – academics, planning & design professionals, teachers, parents…to demand that we get more than the equipment from a catalogue, and that designers and kids have more say in park design than insurance bodies and risk managers.

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Are we missing the point re: kids going places by themselves?

In 2010, a report was produced for VicHealth – a quasi-government health promotion agency. The report: Nothing but fear itself: Parental fear as a determinant impacting on children’s and young people’s physical activity and independent mobility is quite good. It reviews many of the factors that may influence parents’ decisions to let their kids go places by themselves. However this report, like many others make me question their work and my own work.

Why? We all focus on trying to understand parents’ fear, anxiety, concern, and worry about the hazards children and young people might encounter if they go places on their own, but we seem to ignore or be blinded to some of the other issues. Is fear or risk the problem or is it something else?

I often read about or hear about freedoms children and young people had in the past. Leaving aside some of the reasons why many kids are not currently allowed to go places by themselves or why they are driven places, (distance, heavy school bags, poor public transport, extra-curricular activities and sports, family time…), the traffic environment, the physical environment, the social environment and parents views of children’s and young people’s safety are highlighted as major issues; so they are being intensely studied to figure out how they contribute to the decline in kids using public spaces on their own.

There is a white elephant in the room. Studies acknowledge there have been major social and cultural changes over time, but children go places on their own is discussed as if nothing has changed. We know that it is less likely that one parent will be at home during the work week, neighbourhoods have greater transcience, there are different expectations of neighbours and of parents, and there are fewer kids who play outside and go places by themselves.

We tend not to admit to material, political and economic realities as openly. Designing better neighbourhoods is great, but existing urban development is going to dominate our lives for a long time – with the exception of whole new cities being built in Asia. In Australia, there are only so many masterplan planned estates that can be designed from scratch, and there is limited amount of work that can be done in existing areas due to politics and economics. Medium density development can increase the population but this may make many parents uncomfortable, and it may not match their view of a good place to raise kids. In addition, there has generally been a reduction in urban housing block sizes in many suburbs over the past 50 years or so, which could be expected to lead to more kids on the street, but has not. In Melbourne, there is a continuing legacy of poor public transport that the policy and government departments promote as dangerous. There have been immense social, cultural and economic changes in cities that, political correctness aside, may lead to greater anxiety amongst some people.

With all of these changes, are we asking parents to do something that is substantially different to what actually occurred in the past? Are we trying to convince parents to give their kids more urban freedom when there are few supports and supporters? Many community members, police and others do not want children and young people in urban space by themselves, and many of our policies highlight reasons for kids not going places by themselves.

We already have a generation of parents in which many were driven places as children; did not have much exposure to different types of people in urban space, and who may have only used public transport during highschool to get places. Shouldn’t ask parents how they view their own urban competencies, if parents are confident about teaching their kids what they know, and how much they trust their kids to learn these skills and expand upon them?

Most of the parents I know who let their kids go places by themselves love cities, use alternative and public transport often – alone and with their kids, and feel they have something to offer their kids in terms of knowledge and skills when odd, unexpected or uncomfortable things happen. But if there are parents who are not already like this, what are we really asking them to do? And, if we want parents to let their kids go places by themselves more, are we approaching the issue in the right way? I’m not sure that we are.

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Whooo hooo! Flying off the rope swing into the water!

Simple pleasures that are ‘worth the risk’: hold tight, lift your knees and let go as you reach the top of the arch…

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