The following is taken from saturday's Guardian:
One Thursday lunchtime, Lisa Bacon was visited by social services after an anonymous caller reported her for allowing her seven-year-old son to walk to school alone. Had she done wrong?Lisa BaconSaturday December 8, 2007
GuardianThursday, 1pm, about to have lunch. Knock at the door. It's a woman from children's services come to investigate an anonymous report made about me to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Was it true, she asked, that I let my seven-year-old walk to and from school alone, that I left him home alone, and that I let my youngest child (three) play unsupervised in the road out front?
My appetite evaporated, as did any peace of mind, for the next few weeks. How is a parent supposed to react to allegations of neglect? I was, and am still, upset, even though I know the complaints are unjustified.
Seven weeks earlier, I had started letting my son (who's now eight) travel 1km each way to and from school alone. We live in a quiet residential area and almost the only cars on the road are those on the schoolrun. We discussed where was safe to cross and I followed behind as I have another school-age child, so I always knew my son got to school OK. After school we met before he headed off. He had a key to let himself in at home because he got so far ahead. Twice my younger child had been too ill to attend school, so I let my nearly eight-year-old son go to school without me following behind.
He loved the independence. He whizzed off on his scooter - he was never late to school any more. He whizzed home to use the toilet, have a snack, start his homework. He didn't argue with, or have to wait about for, dawdling and temperamental siblings.
On a few occasions, he left the house to come back up the road to chat with us coming home. I expressed considerable praise the first time - because he remembered to lock the door behind him, and I hadn't talked about that previously. Suddenly, my son felt a tangible link between privilege and responsibility. He's been keen since to show himself as responsible in other ways.
There were hiccups; once I left my son playing just inside the school gate, expecting him to follow soon after. Instead he got into a fight, and after that I always waited for him to go out of the gates before I headed home. Once he had a lift home from another well-meaning parent. It was a good opportunity to reiterate that he mustn't take lifts home from school, even from people we know.
Also, since his seventh birthday, on a handful of occasions, I had left him alone at home so I could do the school run. Typically for about 25 minutes, always because he was ill or recovering from illness and it seemed cruel to get him dressed and drag him up to school and back for such a short period. Once he had a strop about not wanting to go to school. Exasperated, I left him alone to quickly take my other child up to the school; after I left, he changed his mind and followed behind.
In the two weeks preceding my visit from the council, I had twice left him at home alone briefly for less urgent reasons - dashing for a newspaper (12 minutes) or to take another child to swimming lessons (25 minutes). We had long and repeated chats about safety issues - what to do if there's smoke or fire, no cooking when home on his own, no helping anybody look for their lost puppy, no going into other people's houses on the way to school, always watch for cars, etc.
As for the claim that cars were having to brake suddenly to avoid hitting my littlest child in the road out front - I was flummoxed. "When?" I said. But there were no more details. My youngest has dashed into the road on occasions. I think I can remember waving thanks to drivers who had to slow down suddenly. Or maybe in the mornings, starting off to school when the children sometimes stood at the top of the drive (still off the road), waiting for me to lock the door - did drivers get worried then? The only awful incident was when a lady brought my toddler to the door to say he'd been out in the road alone. He had unexpectedly learned to undo latches on the side gate. We put an extra latch on the outside, where he couldn't reach. I thought we'd done enough. But now I found my competence as a parent being questioned.
Maybe I deserved to be told off for my (many) mistakes and misjudgments. But how many of us have made parenting decisions that we soon regretted or that other people didn't like? I might have expected some disapproval from others for my actions but I didn't expect anyone to report me for it.
The woman from children's services left without telling me to change anything I was doing. A week later, a letter came saying (only) that in the view of social services, my son was too young to leave home alone, even for short periods. He should be supervised at all times. I wrote back, to clarify whether "all times" applied to the school journey, too. And at what age would my son be, in the view of social services, old enough to leave unsupervised for specified periods? Up to half an hour, up to two hours? Without specific guidance from social services I don't see how I can avoid coming to their attention again. I still await their reply.
At a time when we are repeatedly warned that we should let children take more risks and have more freedom, it didn't seem so ridiculous to try giving my eight-year-old a little responsibility. I am not a self-confident person, and I've struggled ever since with parenting decisions - caught between my instincts and the fear of "What will someone else think?" My sleep is disturbed; it's hard to relax.
Maybe I should just drive all my children to and from school, instead. This would pollute the air, add to global warming, add to the risk of road accidents around the school, and contribute to the risk of my children becoming obese - but nobody would report me to the NSPCC about any of those things.
I'm not a fighter or a campaigner. If children's services tell me not to do something, I won't do it - the last thing I want is for them to keep their file open on me. If someone else says, "I wouldn't let my eight-year-old walk outside or stay at home alone," I have no opinion. Individuals should make up their own minds about what risks they find tolerable to expose themselves and their families to. That's not the same as declaring that everyone else should balance risks against possible benefits. Anyway, the decision has been taken away from my family; I don't feel we have the same choices as other parents in these matters any more. We have been disempowered by a single, anonymous phone call.
Maybe after a while we would have decided we weren't comfortable with our son being alone at home just yet, or going anywhere out of our line of sight. We were still figuring out the risk boundaries and right ways to manage the possible hazards for ourselves - but all that is curtailed now. I am left at a loss about when and how to start giving my son any freedoms again. It's all made more bewildering because I'm an outsider. Although I have lived in the UK for 16 years I was raised in the USA. Maybe I should put this experience down to yet another set of culture differences I will never quite understand.
I'm not naive, I know the world is full of dangers, more so for small children. Sarah Payne was snatched on a country lane like the one I live on. But the chances of my son getting kidnapped and harmed by a stranger are similar to the odds of being struck by lightning. I can't tell my child, "You getting zapped by lightning I can live with, but I don't trust you to be alone for 25 minutes."
Who was the anonymous caller, who obviously knows a lot about me and my family? Their actions mean that any support I might have found in informal chats with other parents is limited - it's not paranoia when you know someone is out to get you. Or at least, judges you severely, won't say it to your face but is all too willing to share notes with others. My children may be marginally safer than before, but I have become a worse person (angry) and a poorer parent (less confident). I am reluctant to volunteer again for the pre-school committee, the school PTA or as a classroom helper, or to seek a job that involves contact with children - in case background checks reveal that I was investigated and I have to explain.
Four years ago, we lived in a poor, immigrant neighbourhood in Loughborough. Around the corner in one direction were dodgy flats, with a reputation for drug-dealing and arson. Around another corner a busy high street, including two licensed sex shops and two unlicensed brothels. Summer days and evenings our road filled with children playing out, some as young as four. I was always the only supervising adult outside among the children. I shudder to think of the reception I would have had from Bangladeshi neighbours had I asked why they didn't come out to watch their offspring: "They watch out for each other," "But it's normal!".
The area I now live in has average social indicators (income, home ownership levels, etc). Most residents are stable working families or pensioners. It's a low-crime, low-traffic residential corner of a small, sleepy market town. But it's reckoned unsafe for a nearly eight-year-old to walk unescorted for five-15 minutes in broad daylight. Am I crazy to think some kind of madness is at work?"
I have emailed the following response but leave others to draw their own conclusions.
'I am stunned that 'Lisa Bacon' cannot see what she might have done wrong. There are a myriad of points she fails to take into account regarding her eight year old, but for the moment I'd like to focus just on the following:
"My youngest has dashed into the road occasions. I think I can remember waving thanks to the drivers who had to slow down suddenly.... a lady brought my toddler to the door to say that he'd been out in the road alone. He had unexpecdtedly learned to undo latches on the side gate. we put an extra latch on the outside, where he couldn't reach. I thought we'd done enough. But now I found my competence as a parent being questioned."
So, it's okay to leave a 3 year old playing on their own outside without any supervision and then to feel that waving to drivers and putting an extra latch on the gate was demonstrating parental responsibility. Frankly I don't understand why you have had children, since you clearly don't care about them - certainly enough to supervise them. This is completely incompetent and unreasonable. How would you have felt if one of those drivers hadn't seen your son until too late and had run him over and killed him? Who would you have blamed then? Presumably you would have wanted people to share in your grief at such a tragic accident?
Attitudes like this make me sick as they represent the kind of uncaring society that expects kids to just get on with growing up and then pathetically wrings it's hands when they start drinking, smoking and having sex without any thought to the consequences, because for those children there aren't any. Worse, they feel able to hold this position as being better than molly-coddled children who aren't allowed to take risks, when surely logic says there is something in between.
I'm sure the picture attached to the article is merely 'representative' but it should be noted that this child clearly either hasn't been told to keep to the edge of the road, or has just forgotten, as eight year olds do (I have a 12 year old who is more than capable of forgetting what he's been told a hundred times).'