I have twin boys in year six and as preparation for their transition to high school next year they are enjoying a new freedom of occasionally walking to school unaccompanied. My principal fear is not that they will be kidnapped or harmed by a stranger, but rather that whilst lost in their own world of Minecraft and MarioKart they will abandon the road sense I have spent the last eight years drilling them with and step off the kerb into the path of a driver distracted by a mobile phone or the irate voice of a sat-nav advising an immediate U-turn.
When I went to collect the children from school recently, one of the twins was enjoying a game of basketball and he asked if he could stay and play. We live a fifteen minute walk from school along a main road, always busy with traffic and pedestrians so I felt comfortable saying he could stay for an extra hour and walk home alone. He had done this a couple of times previously and was enjoying this new independence. I can't say that I'm not anxious when he walks home alone and I'm always relieved when he arrives but I recognise it is an important part of his growing up and if he feels ready then I should support his choice.
My son arrived home about ten minutes later than expected and I was comforted to hear the front door slam and heavy footsteps stomping through the hall. I was ready to rant about staying after school being a privilege and if the trust were abused the privilege would be revoked when he uttered the words that is the stuff of parental nightmares: "Sorry I'm late Mum, I was talking to the weird man."
Whilst walking along a busy road at around 4pm, a car had stopped and the driver had got out and started talking to my son, touching him lightly and offering him money to get into his car. The police later termed the incident a "low-level child approachment" and the good news was his lessons about "stranger danger" had been understood; he had reacted in exactly the way he had been taught and returned home physically and emotionally unharmed. The police and school principal praised him for his actions and as a result of informing the police and his teacher a sequence of initiatives was set in motion to alert other neighbourhood schools. The school used the incident as an opportunity to reiterate to students what to do if they were approached inappropriately.
My personal dilemma came the following morning. My son had forgotten the incident and wanted to walk to school early to play basketball. I, on the other hand, was still reeling from what could have happened, never wanting to let him out of my sight again, wishing the umbilical cord had never had to be cut and rueing the day we first allowed him out of the confines of his stroller. But I do not want my anxiety to affect my children's lives; he showed no fear of walking alone the next day so I could not show him mine. It is my role to find the proper balance between protection and independence, using an appropriate and responsible level of risk assessment. I need to safeguard my children but at the same time allow them enough age-appropriate freedom to equip them with the skills to become confident and well-adjusted adults.
My immediate and instinctive reaction was to refuse his request to walk to school alone because overnight I had morphed fully into "lioness protecting her cubs" mode. I wanted to tell him that I would always accompany him wherever he went but I was mindful of what message that would send; that the world isn't a safe place for him to be alone and that could frighten him more than the incident of the previous day. After all, he had responded to the stranger in exactly the way he had been taught which was a good reason to trust his instincts and not take away his freedom.
I wasn't able to completely deactivate my maternal instincts and capitulate fully but my compromise was that he and his twin brother be allowed to travel together on their bikes. My nerves were raw until I arrived at school with my younger children and the twins waved at us from the basketball court, reassuring me they were safe and my decision to override the strong impulse to keep them at home for the next 24 years had, for that day at least, been vindicated.