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!