Just over a week ago I was contacted by someone on behalf of Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, about their Free Range Kids campaign. The idea of the campaign is that children today should be able to do the things their parents took for granted, such as cycle to school, play football in the street and, well, have a free range childhood.
As someone who took for granted the freedom to go AWOL all day in the summer – returning home only when hungry – I was immediately interested. I’m a firm believer that risks – calculated risks – have to be taken and that children who are wrapped in cotton wool, kept free from all dangers are more likely to come a cropper later. But here’s an intriguing question: do ‘free range’ kids do even better if they’re lucky enough to have a ‘hands on’ rough-and-tumble, spirit of adventure father. In other words, do dads raise more adventurous kids?
That’s what former stay-at-home dad Noah Fagan, an architect from Bristol, thinks. Here’s his guest post.
Watching my son scale the ‘big kids’ climbing frame in the park last weekend – while his friend quivered at the bottom – a sly smile spread across my face. My three-year-old has got to be one of the ballsiest kids I know. And I like to think I’ve played a key role in that because for 16 months, I was a stay at home Dad.
Back in 2008, I was lucky enough to be made redundant three weeks before Isaac was born. I say lucky, because what followed was nearly two years of working for myself, from home, which also meant spending a lot of time with my family – something many ‘big business’ dads miss out on. My wife works for herself too, so we fell into a blissful, if slightly impoverished, ‘new-bohemia’ where whoever had work was at the desk while the other one did childcare. In general though, when it came to the physical stuff like swimming or the park, the responsibility fell to me.
Isaac has never showed any fear in the playground and I’ve never discouraged him. He was one of the few kids that could climb the ladder by the time he was 18 months. He jumped off the top of it when he was 20 months! While mums in the play area twittered around their kids, telling them things were ‘too high’ or ‘scary’ for them to attempt, I’d be giving Isaac a leg up to the fireman’s pole. As a result, he’s the first to throw himself into the pool each Saturday, the last to cry if he gets pushed in the playground – even a bee sting didn’t elicit any tears.
This success, in my opinion, hasn’t been without criticism from others– and I hate to say it, but mainly women. ‘There is a road there!’ one woman yelled a couple of weeks ago, as Isaac ran along in front of me happily. ‘I know, and he’ll stop when he gets to it,’ I smiled. ‘You hope!’ she hissed, rolling her eyes. Another lady, about a year ago in the park, kindly ‘helped’ my son off the top of the slide. ‘He was about to go head first!’ she chuckled nervously, handing a – by now – screaming toddler over to me. ‘That’s how he likes it,’ I smiled politely, putting him right back on. You see, while I’ve been keen for Isaac to explore his limits, I’ve always been there in case he crossed them. He knows to stop when he gets to the road, because I taught him to do so. He’s not afraid to ask for help if he climbs too high, because I’ve shown him there is no shame in knowing when to back down. He’s not a hard nut or a future adrenalin freak, he’s just a boy whose sense of adventure has been pandered too, not discouraged.
Last year UK charity Sustrans launched their Free Range Kids campaign in an attempt to encourage parents to let their kids play outside, and other roads users to be more responsible as a result. We want our two boys to cycle to school, to walk the streets with their mates. I don’t want my teenagers to be stuck in the house playing the Wii because they don’t know any different, and I worry the UK has fallen foul to a cotton wool culture, where our fear-driven attempts to keep kids safe are actually limiting their childhoods, maybe even putting them in harm’s way.
Last week, my wife brought Isaac back from the park, covered in mud from the zip slide. Apparently they spent ten minutes trying to encourage his friend to give it a go, but to no avail. ‘His mum said to me, “aren’t you afraid Isaac might be a racing driver or something?” And I said how cool that would be!’ my wife laughed. So, on reflection, maybe Isaac’s dare devil persona isn’t all down to me – but there is one very unscientific test we could try… Eli, son number two, is six months old and being raised primarily by my wife. If he’s not leaping from the playground ladder by his first birthday, I’m going to claim victory. Watch this space…
Do you want an environment that encourages kids to be active? Signing Sustrans’ pledge is a quick and easy action you can take if you agree. Visit http://www.sustrans.org.uk/freerangekids