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.