Few things are as annoying and saddening as to read in one’s beloved Guardian that,
‘Close friendships among teenagers appear to be declining, according to research showing today's 16-year-olds are less likely than their counterparts 20 years ago to have a best friend they can trust.
This is the conclusion of a study submitted to the Good Childhood Inquiry this week. The inference drawn by almost everyone is that children aren’t developing proper social skills, or physical fitness for that matter, because some paranoid parents won’t allow them out to play with other children. The continuing high profile of the disappearance of four year-old Madeleine McCann has kept the alarm about children's safety at fever pitch. The McCanns have their own reasons for wanting to kept their missing daughter’s photos on the front pages and have proved very adept at it. I am not saying they are wrong to do anything they can to enhance the little girl’s chances of being recognised, but there is damage being done out there. Parents are terrified of letting their children out alone.
That said, I would like to present the case for sensible child supervision, not that I know anything about rearing children mind, but it’s never stopped me weighing in before. Last summer my sister Cass and her then nine-year old daughter Ruben came to stay. As you know, I live in Hackney, ostensibly the worst place in Britain. I’ve mentioned before that all the children and young people, (of which there are many), in my neighbourhood are lovely and gorgeous and I just don’t get this fear of youth thing.
Well, Ruben was only cooped up in my flat with me and her mum for five minutes before she was itching to get out. I don’t think she’d ever been in a flat before, and although Cass and I regard ourselves as cool and bohemian, we are ancient by nine-year old standards. Fortunately I was on nodding acquaintance with a few of the local kids. They all looked bigger than Ruben but I went out and located Shakira and Alberta (pictured above with Ruben) who were hanging out in one of the closes. It was about six in the evening. I asked them if they’d like to come up to meet Ruben.
The first ten minutes with the three of them sat in my living room with Cass and me there as well were a little awkward but only about three questions were necessary before they established common ground. Cass and I made a quick exit to the kitchen – me to a gin and tonic, she to a nice cup of English tea. After about half an hour Ruben popped her head around the door and asked if she could go out to play with the girls. Cass looked at me. I made an executive decision. Of course it was fine for my niece whom I love and adore; who is from the Sunshine Coast in Australia; who has no London-style street wisdom whatever; to go outside at six-thirty in the evening. I asked her to come back in an hour for tea. I did think, if it doesn’t go well, at least she’s got the excuse that she’s got to go home. I also asked the girls not to leave the estate.
Half an hour later I looked out of my kitchen window and there the three of them were in the park across the road, turning cartwheels. It was all fine. Ruben did come back around an hour later for her tea and, half an hour after that Shakira and Alberta buzzed to see if she could come out again. And that’s how it went. Every night she was in London, Ruben went out to play with her new friends and many others that she met too. She was told to come home before it got dark – and she always did. She’s a good kid. I might get a barrage of emails saying 'how could you have taken such a chance, could you ever have forgiven yourself if something had happened to her?' Well, no, I couldn't have. But neither could I have forgiven myself if she'd come to me in ten years time and said, 'I can't believe that there were all those kids where you lived in London and you didn't even let me go and meet them'.
That was a year ago. Last night I stumbled back from my elderly jog around Hackney Marshes to find Shakira and Alberta hanging out along the towpath. They were excited because they’d had an MSN with Ruben in the morning. They still don’t quite understand about the time difference and that she lives so far away and they wonder when she’s coming back. Later, around nine, I looked out the kitchen window and the girls were playing basketball in the carpark with two black boys and a white girl. I watched them for ages because it was such a joy. They didn’t hit any cars with their ball, or have a fight about whose turn it was and they were all just as skilled as each other, and the laughter… Memo from me to ‘community cohesion’ policy wonkettes down at Whitehall – come down to Hackney, we’ll show you how normal ‘people from different backgrounds get on well together’.
Speaking of best friends, my own best friend Jo is coming from Australia on Friday. Better go and wash the sheets then…