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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About Julie Rudner

With great excitement for the adventure we were about to go on, my mother would shout out, "We're off to see the Wizard"! It didn't matter if we were going to the shops for milk, the museum or a holiday. My mum focused on the joy of the everyday, knowing that if we engaged with life, we would always find something new and positive. With great animation my dad would explain the workings of things and how to pull things apart, put them back together, and if the situation called for it, make something new. My sister and I were taught to evaluate situations, make our decisions, and reap the consequences (both good and bad). We were encouraged to push our boundaries and not let fear prevent us from pursuing our dreams. Importantly, we learned to pick ourselves up, learn from our 'failures', and use our valuable lessons to build our confidence, independence and strength in ourselves.
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