Saturday, April 10, 2010

Who's chicken?

My kids have been playing out on the street a lot lately. It’s school holidays and so all the neighbourhood kids have come out of the woodworks and spend their days kicking footballs between driveways and disappearing into each others’ houses.

This is, I know, the model of a positive childhood — the kind of our memories; the kind people spend so much time lamenting the loss of. And in theory, I’m all for it. Certainly I was one of those kids that spent my early years building BMX bike tracks in the bush (no helmets back then), or eagerly visiting the homes of kids who were allowed to watch tele and eat chocolate biscuits.

So why do I find myself thinking (and having to work so hard not to behave) like one of those uptight modern parents we all rail against? All my own issues about control — or, more specifically, the lack of it — come up in the face of having to loosen the reins on my children. And the older they get, the harder this gets.

I understand the importance of freedom, of risk, of making your own mistakes... only now, when it comes to my own kids, I find myself in a constant state of low-level anxiety about their safety. What do you do as a parent? Do you decide what you can happily live with and only let the reins out only that far? Or do you give your kids more freedom than is always completely comfortable, and take responsibility for finding a way to live with this?

Last week I had three extra kids for the day (plus mine = five). At one point, two of them wanted to play footy out the front, while three wanted to cook muffins with me. We started baking in the kitchen and I kept checking on the two outside every few minutes, which got pretty tedious after a while.

In the end I hauled them inside and let them play games on the computer so we could get on with finishing the muffins. Really, I didn’t feel so good about sticking two 8-yr-old boys who were perfectly happy playing sport outside in front of the zombie-box for my own convenience — but I just didn’t feel I could ensure their safety (boys, balls, a road...) and I was sick of trekking back and forth.

When the rest of us had stuck the muffins in the oven, another one retreated to the study. I checked on them. The computer game they were playing looked pretty innocent: little chickens chasing other little chickens or something. It was one my son had played a few times at a good friend’s house. In the scheme of things it looked quite sweet and old-fashioned. I gave them another ten minutes.

A few moments later, I had a traumatised child running to me in the kitchen, asking me if that’s really what they do to baby chickens. “What do you mean, darling?” I asked her. “Was there something in the game?” “No, we won and then there was a video of people killing baby chickens. And they were so mean to them.”

The game was part of an anti-KFC site, dressed up like a site safe for children, but on closer inspection a clever way of drawing them in and then exposing them to some horrific images. I’m all for questioning the practices of multi-national food chains; and I’m all for being honest with kids about the way animals are dealt with so they become meat for our consumption — if and when they are in a position to take this information on board. But this was a sinister and underhand way of getting at children without parental awareness.

I felt completely naive and careless. A child in my care was traumatised, all because I thought, ironically, that she would be safer in my study than out on the footpath. I know most of us use the occasional bit of television or computer time or whatever to ensure a few controlled moments of sanity — a chance to keep our child quiet and in one place while we have a shower or make that phone call or whatever.

But in this case, this decision had come back to bite me on the bum. At the risk of coming over all moralistic, if there is one area worthy of uptight parental control, it’s the internet. As for the neighbourhood adventures, I'm still trying to work that one out...

P.S. My CAE writing intensive, Making Stories: Creative Lives, is on again 1/2 May. If you are a parent and you are trying to make space for writing, this course is for you!


Sally Rippin said...

I absolutely hear you Rach, it's such a tricky situation, PARTICULARLY when you are minding other people's children.
On another note, my oldest son is nearly seventeen and I had a friend over the other night, who has a daughter the same age as my son. When Gabriel came to kiss me goodbye on his way out to a friend's birthday party and I told him not to miss the last tram home or take some money for a taxi my friend was absolutely stunned that I hadn't phoned the parents to check there was no alcohol, given him a curfew and driven him there and picked him up. Suddenly I felt like a bad, neglectful mother. I tried to explain to my friend that so far (as far as I know, obviously) Gabriel has never let me down or broken my trust so I have felt perfectly comfortable giving him more and more freedom, but my friend was still mortified.
Perhaps it's different having a daughter though? And obviously each child is different. I expect it will be different with my second son when he is at the same age. All the same, as a nice footnote, my sister is 'friends' with Gabriel on facebook. By the next day he had already posted photos of the party and my sister and a friend of hers were checking them out, zooming in on the details. She reported to me later that she was absolutely amazed not to see a single bottle of alcohol in any of the photos (something that was unheard of when I was his age at parties) and I certainly didn't smell any on his breath when he got home past midnight (I got up especially to check after feeling anxious after talking to my friend). So, I am relieved to say that I can feel comfortable to do the same again. Maybe I am particularly lucky with Gabriel, who knows? Or maybe our kids are just more trustworthy than we give them credit for?
PS that anti-KFC website sounds AWFUL!

Kate Moore said...

Mate, you were brave. I never liked our kids friends being near the computer, and thankfully at that age, they weren't much into them. And the dreaded PlayStation was pretty tame at our house too, until their later years, and even then we complain about violence and swearing so much they just give up and go back to Crash Bandicoot.
Don't beat yourself up though, all life's lessons, but yes, the KFC site sounds awful. I can see them sitting there, eyes big, horror. Oh dear. I'd have let them to their footy. They could as much have come to grief in the few minutes you were in the house with the muffins than the seconds you checked. That's the dumb thing, isn't it? Our kids were allowed to climb trees and onto rooves and mostly they knew their limitations. Well, they must have, there were no broken bones from it. And they were telling me the other day of the great leaps they were making between the shed and a tree that I knew nothing about, though I'd been checking every few minutes when I knew they were on this particular roof. They actually timed their leaps between the two spots to happen just after I'd made the check. Mission Impossible-style. Cunning buggers. Still, no harm done. The harm they came to always happened in the safe, sanctioned spaces. Now, that's their child years. Their teen years - whole different story. Come back to me then, hey. You'll be more grey and possibly have bitten your nails down to the quick.

Nicole said...

So much to think about. Mine are only 2 and 8 months and I already worry about all of these things.

I am quite disappointed to hear about the anti-KFC game as I have been part of some of these campaigns and would have thought they wouldn't be that stupid. Do you know what group did it?

The internet is something that I will be particularly wary of as my children get older.

Red Hen (dette) said...

Oh no you poor thing. The internet is a tricky thing. At school we teach the kids to hit the screen off button if there is anything they don't like on the screen- Mostly the sights we direct the kids to have been previewed but it only takes one click of the wrong link and they may be somewhere that is not suitable for them. Then they are told to alert the teacher so we can have a look later. By turning off the screen rather than the computer means that we can see what the kids have viewed and explain or clarify if possible plus it gives children control to self sensor they don't have to watch what is on the screen (The kids I teach are about 8 so a similar age)
Letting go is a tricky thing and you have to do it if you don't you give them the message they can't make decissions for themselves (I speak from my own cotton wool upbringing that led me into an emotionally abusive marriage) but even knowing this first hand I still find it very difficult to do and yes you do spend much of the time for the next 10 years coping with a certain level ofstress as you negotiate between what they need and your needs. Good luck. It sounds like a long time but it really goes like a blink of an eye.