On their bikes

July 5, 2010

There’s uproar in Dulwich this morning after the Sunday Times report yesterday on the parents who allow their children, aged 8 and 5, to cycle to school unaccompanied every morning, on a mile-long route, crossing a main road with the help of a lollipop lady or other parents.

I’ve used the word ‘allow’ – but is that right? I doubt whether the children are gagging to go off alone every morning. They have apparently made this trip safely for the past six months. It’s been sunny in Dulwich for about three weeks. The rest of those six months have seen pretty horrible weather. If I were a five-year-old, I’m not sure I would want to be out cycling in all sorts with only my slightly older sister for company every morning. If I were an eight-year-old, I definitely wouldn’t want to be responsible if my little brother fell off his bike into traffic in the rain. If anything happened, of course it wouldn’t be her fault, but she would undoubtedly feel guilty. It seems a massive burden to plonk on such young shoulders.


But weather’s  not the main issue, of course. If only it were. The trouble is that Dulwich is in London, a big, nasty mean city. However much we pretend we’re in a village cut off from the troubles of urban life, we Dulwich residents are as much subject to bonkers drivers, perverts, traffic jams, accidents and stress as anyone else in London.

Usually, the school run is a bit of a blur for me. The preamble is an hour of shouting, rushing, eating, hair-brushing, gym kit finding, project printing, homework finding and general chaos. In the car, things tend to be calmer, though on the road around us people are constantly losing it big time. Dulwich has been ringed with temporary traffic lights for months. Temporary traffic lights mean permanent headaches for everyone caught up by them. There is a lot of revving and snarling and frankly aggressive driving. I even found myself cursing an elderly lady on a bike today, as she swayed all over the middle of the road, reducing me and a long queue of others to a slow cycling pace behind her.  People in Dulwich drive big cars and, in the morning rush, they just barely tolerate other people driving big cars. They hate people on bikes. I’d like to think that we’d all make an exception for very small people, unaccompanied, on bikes, but I know that if these little kids were cycling in an annoying way for any reason, they’d get plenty of toots and angry revving swerves.

It’s also a horrible fact that, about two years ago, a man nearly succeeded in abducting an eleven-year-old girl in Dulwich, about three streets from where I live. She was walking home with friends and the man literally picked her up and grabbed her – she was small for her age – and tried to stuff her into his car. It was only the children’s shrieks and the fact that it was a hot day, so people had their windows open and heard the commotion, that saved her. Can I just stress, this girl was eleven.  I don’t want to give anyone ideas but, if I were a pervert, and heard that there were unaccompanied five-year-olds available in Dulwich … it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I understand that the parents in question want to reclaim some of the innocence of their own youth. The father, it seems, grew up somewhere rural in Germany where it was perfectly fine to ride around from a young age on your own. Well, that is all lovely, and doable no doubt if you live somewhere idyllic in the countryside, like Narnia. But, ahem, this is London.

And don’t the parents want to spend the time with the children? No-one is pretending that the school run is the finest slice of quality time available, but it can still be fun, discussing the day to come and the ins and outs of playground etiquette. Even when both parents work, people everywhere juggle arrangements so that the children can be delivered at school in one piece and on time. Children grow up fast enough, and the moment comes all too soon when they actively do not want their parents around to embarrass them. At the ages of five and eight, though, they still need and want their parents’ support and protection. Independence and fortitude are great strengths, but they have time enough to develop them in the years ahead, surely?

I’m aware that I’m sounding judgemental, which I don’t want to be, but I am finding it hard to understand the parents’ motivation. They seem to be actively seeking to make a point. Fair enough – but please don’t use your children to make it.

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  • Maggie Christie July 5, 2010 at 3:18 am

    I don’t understand the parents’ motivation either. What if, god forbid, something did happen? I feel guilty for allowing my two – six and eight – to run the short distance along the pavement into school. But I always cross the road with them – in a very quiet rural Welsh village. I don’t agree that these children cycling to school on their own is a way for the parents ‘to reclaim some of the innocence of their own youth’. Surely there are other ways?

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 5, 2010 at 7:37 am

      I know, that phrase really struck me, too – the world has changed in the last thirty years, and why make these children try to prove otherwise?

  • Rosie Scribble July 5, 2010 at 4:41 am

    I read this story at the weekend. My daughter is six, nearly seven, and there is no way I would allow her to cycle to school even if it was just around the corner. She is just too young. I can’t speak for the other children but in my daughter’s case, even if I told her not to speak to strangers and stick to her route, she is still highly influential and not very streetwise, because you can’t be at that age, so she could easily be led astray and there are so many people out there who just can’t be trusted. For me, I need the peace of mind that she has got through the school gates safely. I wait in the playground every morning until I have watched her walk inside. We get the school bus together every day. It means I have to walk back and it takes a while but I don’t feel she is even old enough to go on a school bus alone nevermind take a bike. I’m all for children gaining their inpendence but only when it feels appropriate and safe.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 5, 2010 at 7:38 am

      I’m with you, Rosie. I really like to see that my girls have reached school even now (which I admit is slightly ridiculous, they are more than capable of getting there themselves) but the idea of not knowing all day whether your five-year-old had made it to school or not would have me in bits.

  • YummyNo1 July 5, 2010 at 4:42 am

    I too read this with complete disbelief.. 5 and 8? I’m sorry, but what were they thinking?
    Also, you can’t help thinking that the reaction would have been a whole lot different if it was some single parent on benefits sending their babies off to school on their own.. Not sure they would get away with calling this ‘reclaiming their innocence’ somehow – it would be seen as neglect and bad parenting.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 5, 2010 at 7:40 am

      I think you’ve made a really good point there, YN1. Reclaiming innocence or making life easier for the parents? I wonder which it is.

  • Laura July 5, 2010 at 4:43 am

    I’m not sure. I like to think that I allow my children a bit more freedom than society would like. They are allowed to play in the street occasionally which is a cul de sac) and I keep an eye on them (but don’t hover over them), after all they are only 4 and 5.

    I certainly wouldn’t let my five year old cycle to school. I have trouble controlling my pounding heart when they are with me near roads. My 4 year old has a death wish.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 5, 2010 at 7:41 am

      That’s the thing, isn’t it? At five, a child is so easily distracted – they could easily decide to take off in another direction or stop suddenly for some reason. I hate to think about it

  • Victoria July 5, 2010 at 4:58 am

    We cycle almost everywhere here in NL. Ruby up front waving to everyone and Luca on his own bike. Its 10 mins to school – we cycle together (at 7 I feel he is too young to do it alone – but other children his age do), chat, talk about what’s happening at school and on the way home bring other kids with us on their bikes. It feels so safe with separate cycle paths and traffic light systems for the bikes, and it is ingrained in the Dutch to watch out for cyclists. I know this is so very different from nearly any other country. There is no way I’d do this in London. It is not set up for cyclists (children or adults) and far too busy on the roads. Those parents really need to look at the risks of sending their children off on their own and accept that London (or any other city not providing ‘real’ cycle paths) is not the place to send them out to fight with the traffic for the sake of encouraging independence or themselves some extra time.

  • Dulwich Divorcee July 5, 2010 at 7:42 am

    Thanks, Victoria, it’s really interesting to get your point of view. Having spent some time in Holland (and loved it) you soon get to realise how well set up everything is for bikes. It really isn’t the same here, as you say. People actively treat bikes as a nuisance. I hope those children are wearing helmets!

  • @goonerjamie July 5, 2010 at 11:11 am

    The mind boggles, there would be no way in hell I could trust my 5 year old to behave on that journey, even with me riding next to her. Admittedly mine is more feral than most, but still?

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 7:52 am

      There’s no way I could have kept either of mine on a bike when they were that age! A passing gust of wind would have knocked them off …ah, feral five-year-olds, those were the days ….

  • spudballoo July 5, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    I think this is such a tough call. It’s easy for us to be all Judgey Pants about it but, in the end, we all make our own parenting decisions and then have to live with them.

    I used to live in London, but have lived in Suffolk for 18 months. It’s very sleepy round here, very ‘safe’. But an attempt to abduct a primary school girl (8) was made a few weeks back and it was a real wake up call for me.

    I can’t imagine letting my boys cycle to school whilst they are at primary school. But, to be fair, mine are 3 and 4 currently so I find it hard to imagine the years ahead.

    I’m sure the parents are acting with the best of intentions. Because, more or less, that’s all any of us ever do. We’re just trying our best, regardless of what the media or other parents think of us.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 7:53 am

      Hi there Spudballoo, sorry to hear about the attempted abduction, how scary! I hope these parents are acting for the best, it does sound as though they are out to make a point on the way though ….

  • Addy July 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I wouldn’t let my 18-year-old do it!!! Seriously, some people should not have kids if they are not going to be there for them.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 7:54 am

      I’m sure Kay would be thrilled if she could see that comment! Nearly a doctor and not allowed on a bike, I don’t know 🙂

  • Mrs Worthington July 5, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I too read this article with disbelief and it was a hot topic in the office today too. General consensus was that 5 & 8 is just too young to go unaccompanied to school and the parents making a point seem to be missing a point. They are their children for goodness sake. My children only started walking home from school unaccompanied in Y6 to get them ready for high school and even then it wasn’t every day. Independence is good but at the right age.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 7:58 am

      Hi Mrs W, yes I’m all for a bit of independence training but I’m certain my girls would refuse to do this journey every single day and they are 14 and 12. Mind you, that’s not a good thing either ….oh dear!

  • geekymummy July 5, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Clearly these kids are too young,in London, and in this day and age but your post raises an interesting point. When are kids old enough to be given some responsibility?

    My husband used to ride his bike to school in Geneva when he was 10, and a moped as soon as he turned 15.

    I took the city bus to school, 15 miles away, by myself, from age 13. I enjoyed the hour of freedom my sister and I had to peruse the shops of Bedford before catching the 5.15 bus back to our village

    My parents couldn’t drive me, they both worked, and my school wasn’t near their workplaces.

    I think was 15 the first time I was allowed to go into London by myself, with my sister who was 14, to go shopping on Oxford St.

    IN contrast, My co worker won’t let her 18 year old daughter, a girl who is about to go away to college, catch a bus by herself in a well to do silicon valley suburb.

    I have no idea what I will do when faced with this! Do your girls go into town on their own?

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 8:02 am

      My older daughter has been out and about a bit at 14, always with friends, to the cinema and so on. At that age I had gone shopping in Oxford Street and it won’t be long before she’s doing that (particularly if she reads this!). Sounds like your co-worker might be being a bit over-protective, which is, of course, as dangerous in many ways …it’s so hard to get it right as a parent. A lot depends on the child. But I think with this particular story the part that stands out is that there are very, very few 5-year-olds who would be capable of making that journey without incident every day.

  • Heather - Notes From Lapland July 6, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I’m in two minds about this to be honest. I see where you are coming from and I’ve never been to Dulwich so I can’t comment on its safety etc but there is a part of me that screams ‘so what?’ It used to be normal for kids to ravel to school alone, I certainly did as a child, but now it’s weird, wrong and neglectful and normal is a car journey.

    And when did a mile become a long way? As a kid I used to walk that distance alone to my best friends house nearly every day.

    There is a lollipop lady so the crossing the road is gong to be done sensibly – if she’s anything like the lollipop ladies of my youth she’d make them get off their bikes and walk over the road- and the rest is on pavements.

    I can’t help feeling that if everyone did this, everyone sent their kids to school on their bikes or by walking, that the world would be a safer place where people looked out for each other a bit more rather than turning a blind eye instead of one where we all shut our kids up in cars and ferry them around.

    But like I said, I’ve never been to Dulwich so can’t comment on this particular situation and maybe living here in the safety of a small village in rural Finland has numbed my sense of the danger of the UK, but I still shake my head a bit at the outcry of it all.

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 6, 2010 at 8:04 am

      I think you’re right, that if everyone did this, it would be fine and the world would be a better place – but everyone doesn’t, particularly in Dulwich where the norm is to drive a massive Chelsea tractor-type car as if you’re Ayrton Senna with PMT. You’ve never been to Dulwich?? Forget the story -now that’s shocking 😉

  • exmoorjane July 6, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Oh well done for writing this – I thought much the same but couldn’t raise the energy to type yesterday. I don’t even allow my 11 year old to cycle down to the cricket pitch – even though we live in a teeny tiny place. Reason why? He’s not got the road sense and is so easily distracted. Yes, they’re cycling on pavements (but yikes, not good for pedestrians) but even so – I agree it puts a HUGE pressure on the eight year old…
    Yup, we all had much freer, easier childhoods – but then is not now. Sad but true.

    • Cycling Addict July 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm

      Of course he’s not got the road sense if you don’t let him cycle! The sooner kids are exposed to risk the better they learn how to deal with it. I really support these parents. Just feel sorry that they live among such a load of cossetting parents – they’d love living here in Cambridge where lots of children cycle to school. Social services should be chasing the overweight children instead – they are in far more danger.

      • Dulwich Divorcee July 7, 2010 at 6:29 am

        Well, maybe Cambridge is a better place to cycle, being flat, having cycle lanes, having loads of keen cyclists and not being …London. There is a road safety course for kids in Dulwich – from age 10. And overweight kids may kill themselves in 30 or 40 years time, but it only takes one lorry to take out that five year old tomorrow. Sorry we don’t agree this time!

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 7, 2010 at 6:25 am

      Thanks, Jane, good to get your take on it – so much is down to the individual child and his/her roadworthiness – but is any five-year-old up to that? Yes, sad but true indeed

  • Emma July 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    My 7 year old goes to school about a mile away from where we live in rural Leicestershire. No way in hell would I ever, ever allow her to ride to school on her own. I don’t want to be judgmental as I’m quite aware it can be different in each area but I personally couldn’t do it!!!

    • Dulwich Divorcee July 7, 2010 at 6:34 am

      I wonder if you would feel ok if you cycled with her? Quite a lot of parents do that and sort of provide a ‘human shield’ for the child. I can’t pretend I do it though!

  • kerry @ miss power writes... July 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

    my fiancee is 36 years old and was knocked off his bike on Monday morning after a motorist decided to drive into him on a roundabout

    jim had right of way, he was wearing a helmet and high-vis jacket

    he is also 6ft 2inches tall

    and yet the driver did not see him

    would i allow my young children to cycle to school on their own?

    not a f*cking chance

  • Dulwich Divorcee July 7, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Poor Jim, that’s absolutely terrible! Hope he’s ok? A friend here also had a terrible crash recently when a fox went into him – he went straight over the handlebars and was quite badly injured. Glad to see you are one of the edgy bloggers there btw! 😉

  • Sparx July 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I used to walk to school with my friends (aged 8) and my brother (aged 5) when I was 7, it was along a country path, one road to cross, in a medium sized village in Somerset back in the early 70s – most of the time one of our parents was along but once in a while we’d go alone. I think that’s about as much as risk as anyone shold take.

    A few years back I was riding my motorbike to work when at a light, two very small children tried to run across the road in front of traffic. We all screamed to a halt. I shouted at them; I wanted to scare the living daylights out of them, I wanted them to beg their Mum to come with them next time… children of 8 take risks, children of 5 have little real sense of danger. I understand about wanting to reclaim innocence; I feel there are better ways to do this then risking a child’s life… great post and great responses too.

  • Sparx July 26, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    er, that was supposed to be ‘ friends aged 8’!