Thursday, June 07, 2007

Elegantly Best Friends

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…

Photo by Me or maybe it was Cass


Liz said...

What a lovely post. I want to come down to Hackney immediately and hug those two lovely young ladies.

I too am of the persuasion of spouting off about child rearing despite never having kids of my own. The majority of my friends have kids (and I have 'honorary auntie' status to some of them) and I quite like to observe the different parenting techniques they have.

I think that child rearing techniques have to be tailored to the individual child - we're all different after all; but I must say that the children of my more laid-back friends do seem to be turning out to be happier and more rounded human beings than the ones who are kept under constant supervision. Of course children need to be protected, but cases like the missing child in Portugal are rare. And lets not forget that Mr & Mrs McCann had effectively left those children home alone that evening. There is a big difference between letting a nine-year old play out in the street in Hackney with a group of other kids (and within sight of your window) and leaving three todlers asleep in a holiday apartment while you're out eating dinner!

Quink said...

Brilliant and touching. Of course you did the right thing...

That's so pants said...

Hi Liz

Yes, they are lovely girls. My niece has great taste and so do they.

Re leaving very young children alone - I have lived in Europe and I know it's not unusual to leave children asleep a little distance away and check on them frequently - as the McCanns did. I'm sure I've told this story before but when I was staying with Japanese friends in Tokyo in the 80s, we went out for an entire evening, leaving their seven year old daughter asleep in bed. I was terribly uncomfortable about it and questioned it. My friends said, 'but she never wakes up'. We came home about 3am and the front door was wide open. My heart froze but Masami simply said to her husband Hideo, 'You left the front door open.' It was true. He had. The little girl was still fast asleep.

Hey Quinkie

Thanks. I know. Hindsight is fabulous when it shows you up in a good light, huh.

Bwca said...

Those poor McCanns are paying the price for their hope to have the same experience that your Tokyo friends did.

I have done what they did.

In Noosa actually.
Dinner in the resort hotel's restaurant with the parents of the other 2 children left in our suite with our own child - 2 aged 7 and one age 9.
We told the hotel staff that if they heard loud noise then the kids were misbehaving and that we were in the restaurant.
It all went OK.
I do feel sorry for the McCanns.

and your post was lovely to read, and like Liz, i want to hug them all.

That's so pants said...


I've said this many times before - I'd HATE to be a kid growing up now with my white, middle-class parents always at the end of a very short lead with a worried look upon their faces. I think I'd grow up thinking the world was a fearful place. All the kids in my neighbourhood seem to play happily together regardless of age or race. I actually think that's quite normal. It's only the media and the govt that seem to think some massive overhaul of 'our shared values' is necessary to make what we in Hackney seem to do quite naturally, happen. I'm not denying that there is bullying out there and all of my friends with teenagers have had the horror of experiencing their kids being mugged for their mobiles. What the report is saying (although not in so many words), is that kids of primary school ought to be left alone to form friendships before they go through that angsty stage in late teens when it's all cliquey and complicated.

bye bye bellulah said...

I think too many of us have absorbed the idea that life is to be safe at all costs, even at the cost of having a life worth living.

Lovely post.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

What parent can say; hands on heart, that they havn't done anything that could have endangered their childs welfare. When staying in a Hotel recently I noticed some young families. In the evenings the couples were dining alone. You have to presume that the little ones were tucked up safely in bed;Mum and Dad were having their evening meal and going to the room often,just as Kate and Gerry McCann did. For Liz,or anyone else, to lay any blame on them is cruel.

That's so pants said...

Hi BBB (I hope I may call you that), and welcome. I agree - unfortunately, the child safety agenda is being organisationally driven, by people who have a (however benevolent) vested interest. Hello children's charities, hello police, hello authors of reports like 'Every Child Matters' and a great big hello to the media.

I hasten to disclaim the validity of almost everything ever uttered by Lowri Turner but I did happen to see her interviewed on BBC the other morning on this issue and she said that, as the parent of young children, she found the peer pressure to never be more than hand grabbing distance from your child at any time, overwhelming.

I do think it's largely a white, middle-class phenomenon. I also think it's sheer laziness on the part of govt advisors who taunt women with 'better safe than sorry' advice for their own convenience. It undermines the autonomy and authority of women - who are the parent most likely to be responsibility for the safety of their children.

I won't go on because no one really reads the comments. It's a post in itself and I will follow it up.



That's so pants said...

Hi marymaryquitecontrary - super name but I hope in the future, presuming we have a future, you won't mind me shortening it because it's a lot to type and, although I am an incredibly fast typiste, I would prefer not to waste too many keystrokes if you see what I mean. Er-hem.

The key thing here is parental judgment. Babies sometimes die in their sleep - it's called cot death and it's quite rare - except it sometimes runs in families. Despite a decade of high profile cases where mothers were wrongly convicted of killing their babies, parents did not suddenly set up night watches over babies to make sure that they didn't stop breathing in the middle of the night without anyone there to do something about it. Life is perilous but also exciting.

I was a bit flippant about what I said in the post - I was certain I wasn't endangering my adored niece's life. I've lived here for ten years and I've watched the children play and, to be honest, I was more thinking about whether she'd feel comfortable in a social setting that was completely different. You forget how brilliantly flexible kids are sometimes.

I don't feel judgmental towards the McCanns. I absolutely understand that they are doing what they are doing with the sole objective of getting their daughter back. Their priority is to stay on the front pages for as long as they can. They've had a tough time doing it and have paid the price. I suspect it doesn't matter to them what people think at this point. Ultimately it's up to editors to decide what's news and what's not.

I think you're right about resorts. The convention is mostly to leave children asleep in their beds, as you would at home, and check on them every half hour. You're probably only as far away as you would be if they were asleep on the top storey and you were having a dinner party two floors down. Presumably that's still allowed



R.H. said...

The parents aren't to blame at all, liz you should read the facts.

Blame the kidnappers -with their determination and planning.

Liz said...

The word "blame" does not appear in my comment.

I wouldn't risk leaving small children alone because they might fall or choke, but that's only my opinion. Thousands of parents take that chance and no harm of any kind comes to the children.

It's a terrible thing that's happend to the McCanns but, as I said before, rare.

R.H. said...

Of course it's blame, what else is it?

Kids are left alone when they sleep every night, with parents in the next room, you can't keep constant vigil.

That's so pants said...

R.H. - I'm sensing two Lleyton Hewitts here. What's going on? Serve or get off the court old chum.

R.H. said...

I've no idea what you're talkng about.

That's so pants said...

To the tune of 'Life is a cabaret'

That's so pants said...

To the tune of 'Life is a cabaret'

R.H. said...

What? I still don't get it. Must be a pommy joke. Life isn't a cabaret, it's a meat pie, with tomato sauce.

You'll have trouble back here.

That's so pants said...

OMG - I'm doing everything in stereo - must stop enjoying Sauvignon Blanc so much.

R.H. - keep taking the pills.

Now there's a pommie joke for you.

You are right of course, I will have trouble in OZ. I have trouble in Britain and people don't even notice you here.

R.H. said...

I'm just glad it's a joke.