If children are to grow up streetwise and in touch with the world around them, adults have to give them more licence, says Stuart Waiton
A few years ago, the researcher Mayor Hillman argued at a play conference that we should encourage children to talk to strangers, not be frightened of them. The logic of Mayor's argument was that the vast majority of adults are trustworthy, and that only by becoming "streetwise" and engaging with the outside world would children both develop their independence and also be safe. Despite agreeing with his argument, when he said this in public I was still taken aback.
To argue that talking to strangers is a good thing simply goes against every commonsense understanding of childhood. Indeed, almost any act of independence carried out by a child has become problematic today.
Take the example of walking to school. When I started school in 1972, the question of what age a child should walk to school by themselves did not appear to be an issue of any great concern to most parents. Having been taken by my mother for the first week, I was subsequently expected to walk to school by myself, and this was generally the case for most of the kids in my class.
Things have changed. Many, if not most children, appear to be either driven or accompanied to school by their parents, and schools now send out information leaflets about the pros and cons of walking and driving to school. Having already received a leaflet explaining the issues associated with driving to school that instructed me how to "ensure the car seat is safe", the latest leaflet helps to explain the various health benefits of walking. It does not explain that one of the benefits would be the development of childhood independence.
Having driven my son John, aged five, to school for the past year, a few weeks ago I decided he should walk by himself. This was partly because I found both him and his younger sister playing happily in the street outside the house of John's best friend - something we had never allowed either of them to do.
John's friend's family come from Pakistan, and it is noticeable in the area I live, which has a large Asian population, that, whereas the children from these families appear to be playing out in the streets and parks almost as soon as they are out of their nappies, there is not a white child in sight.
Part of the reason for this appears to be that the preoccupation with safety which now hangs over every childhood experience in the UK has not yet filtered through to many of the Asian parents in the area, who subsequently relate to their children in much the same way as my parents did.
The logic of Mayor's argument, that the more streetwise a child the more able he or she is to deal with difficult situations, is hard to contest.
However, our exaggerated concern with safety today tends to create a state of mind among parents - and teachers - that almost inevitably errs on the side of caution. "Learning from your mistakes" in today's more anxious age makes little sense.
Of course, the result of my attempt to encourage John to be independent backfired last week when he got lost after walking round to one of my friend's houses. My wife and I spent half an hour driving around the estate trying to find him. John was eventually returned by a couple who drove him home after he had approached them and said that he was lost.
Perhaps this experience should remind us that John is too young to be out on his own - or that we should follow him in future when he is doing something for the first time, and we should pay more attention to the safety leaflets we receive.
Alternatively, we could follow Mayor's argument, despite our own apprehensions, and recognise that, in fact, strange adults are not a danger to my children. Given the chance, they are the very people who can help them to become both streetwise and safe.
Stuart Waiton is director of www.GenerationYouthIssues.org, where information can be found on a conference that he is organising later this year entitled "Cotton wool kids: making sense of child safety".