Dear Dave

Friday 23 January 2009

The scary blue yonder

Dear Dave,

The days are getting longer, the weather is unlikely to get much worse before it gets better and it's only a few weeks until the first flowers start coming out. Cheer up. In another couple of months you can start taking the kids to the swing-park on a regular basis again, rather than having to fight your way to the softplay through the icy rain. For now, enjoy the excuse to stay Inside. Crank up the heating, plonk Daisy in front of some Teletubbies and have a little doze on the sofa. You deserve it.

The rant in your last letter about being stuck indoors actually reminded me of something I read recently. I was helping a friend who is applying for UK residency revise for her Britishness Exam. This involved flicking through a book of multiple choice questions and asking any that caught my eye. I tended to home in on ones which were obscure or scary: How many members of the Scottish Parliament are there? When is St George's Day? Do women get the vote? Is it necessary to pass a test before driving a car?

The one that really got my attention, however, was about childcare. Without the book to hand, I can't remember the exact wording but it went something along these lines:

'Children in the UK do not play outside as much as they used to in the past. What reason is often given for this?

A - Increased danger from strangers.
B - They'd rather stay home and watch TV or play videogames.
C - Many parts of the country are infested with hordes of radioactive zombies.
D - Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup final.'

Since glowing undead are restricted to small pockets of East Anglia and 'D' was clearly a trap for people who are too English (we've enough of them already and we don't need more), this only left 'A' and 'B' as likely options. It couldn't be 'A', though. Despite some dreadful cases receiving vast publicity, there's no evidence that attacks on children from strangers are increasing.

With a feeling of resignation, I checked the answer. It was, indeed, 'B'.

When I got to a computer, I looked up the study guide online. The reasons it gives for children staying home more are: TV and increased parental fear of attacks by strangers.

But is this really the case? For a start, TV and computer games are a symptom as much as a cause. If kids are at home anyway, they need something to do. And, let's face it, at the moment they're going to be at home a lot:

I helped out on a nursery trip yesterday. We took a bus to the general vicinity of Edinburgh Castle and then hiked up the Royal Mile to have our picture taken in front of the gate as part of Scottish Week. It was a chance for fresh air, exercise and a little culture - all the things kids allegedly can't be doing with these days. Sure enough, half of them were crying or pleading to go home after only ten minutes. This had more to do with the weather than a desire to plug themselves into a PlayStation, however. It was cold. The kind of cold where small children judder up and down uncontrollably while making noises like a moped. The snot wasn't quite freezing on their faces but it was close.

I haven't seen the photos yet. If there's one where we're all smiling, I'll be astonished...

Add to the miserable weather the fact that it's dark an hour after the boys emerge from school this time of year, and there's not much chance of us doing a great deal of outdoor playing. I'm glad they have their computer games to keep them occupied or they'd be constantly squabbling and amusing themselves by working out how to build Weapons of Mass Destruction from LEGO.

Of course, there's no saying my boys won't spend plenty of July Inside with the curtains drawn, waving wiimotes around. Even when the weather is nice, Outside can be pretty dull without friends around (unless you like hunting grasshoppers or talking to trees). This isn't the fault of computer games, as such. I used to spend my summer holidays reading books and playing board games against myself rather than venture into the garden. When a friend came round, that still didn't make enough people to play Tig, so we stayed Inside and played Monopoly.

I suppose once upon a time, in the good old days, there were always packs of children roaming the streets, so kids could head out the door and know there would almost certainly be someone to interact with. This critical mass of youngsters with the power to pull in others is now much less common. The problem becomes self-perpetuating - there's no one Outside to play with, so kids have no incentive to go Outside to be there for others to play with.

It's up to parents to shove them Outside to enjoy themselves, whether it's lonely and raining or not. So why isn't this happening? Well, I suspect that in the good old days, when people had twenty-seven children and only two rooms, they were only too desperate to chuck the kids out the door and clear some space to put the laundry on to boil. With a modern ratio of children to bedrooms that is much closer to parity, there's more stress to be had worrying what the kids are up to Outside than from tripping over them if they're lurking around Inside.

Never mind the potential danger from strangers, I'm much more afraid of cars, four-year-olds with sharpened sticks and climbing frames. Small children can find any number of ways to get themselves into difficulties, no matter how safe the environment seems.

Marie saw some other children playing in the small, enclosed park out the back door at the weekend and asked to join them. I was busy making lunch, so I got her coat on her and sent her out to fend for herself. I had some trepidation after last time, however. At the end of the summer, I let her run free in the park with a couple of older children but, within five minutes, one of the others came hurrying to get me. Marie needed help. She'd slid herself headfirst along a bench and halfway through the armrest at the end before getting stuck, leaving herself dangling over backwards in a painful fashion.

She'd been barely out of my sight, I had the door wide open and I was listening for trouble. I was still caught out.

Things went better this time but I was nervous, nonetheless. When the kids are Inside, I can hear what they're doing and I know instantly if there's a problem. Sometimes they can be left to their own devices for an hour at a time. If they're Outside, life isn't so simple. Once they're beyond the end of the garden, who knows what's going on?

The official guideline is that children under thirteen shouldn't be left unsupervised at home. If children are left in the care of an under-sixteen, then their parents are still legally responsible. And that's in the house. What about the world beyond that's full of cars, pointy sticks and malicious park benches? Surely the same principle applies?

Essentially, this means that if one of my kids wants to go Outside, I have to go with them. If I go, the others have to come too. A quick breath of fresh air becomes a family expedition and is much less likely to happen.

It's not the fault of computer games that kids don't play Outside so much. It's more to do with parents' justified fear of cars, public seating and just about everything else. Most of us are too afraid to admit it, though. It's easier blaming Nintendo.

Ho well, maybe that's too complicated for the Britishness Test to deal with. Perhaps the questions should stick to common knowledge that is less open to debate and will help people blend in. Might I suggest asking who won X Factor and which buttons to press in Wii Bowling?

Happy dozing.

Yours in a woman's world,


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