It’s half term so my daughter (12) and a close friend of hers (13) are both staying with my boyfriend and I in Manchester. The Girl suggested a trip into town with her friend – let’s call her Molly, and we’ll call my girl, Lara as that’s her name. When we suggested they might like to go on their own, with some money and maybe have lunch, they were both very pleased. Had either of them glanced anxiously at each other or us, we would not have pushed them. Let’s get that clear. But armed with cash, phones, a map, and the knowledge that both girls get on buses and go to school every day by themselves into a world of weirdoes, pushy adults and misleading road signs, we figured a few hours by themselves in a small city like Manchester would be fine.
So full of pancakes and plans, the girls trotted off to get the train into town. An hour later while the girls were in a shop, Molly called her mum to say she was having a great time.
Two seconds later, my phone rang and I was treated to a blistering invective from Molly’s mother of how ‘irresponsible’ I was leaving ‘two young girls alone in a city’. Did I have ‘any idea what might happen?’ I was shocked but also bewildered. ‘It’s all right for Lara. She lives in a city!’ continued the outraged mama. ‘What do you think is going to happen to them?’ I asked. ‘They have money and fully charged phones and they really wanted to go.’
But Molly’s mother was scared and furious. What she meant of course was the fear that roaming gangs of paedophiles on the lookout for young girls would grab Lara and Molly while they were browsing in a store. This terrible fear that some sort of sexualised attack would happen – some monster crawling out of Starbucks would immediately spot the girls and whisk them off.
Parental terror of sexual attack on their daughters by Someone Out There is totally immune to actual facts. Such as our sons are far more likely to suffer criminal violence My son aka The Boy aka Ben, has been attacked twice. Once aged 15 he and his friends were mugged for their phones. A year later, he and a friend were chased by a group of lads. Ben flagged down a car and asked for help. ‘How did you know the driver would be ok?’ I asked. He said that the driver was a woman and she had a baby’s car seat in the back so ‘she was less likely to be a psycho.’ Lara travels by bus to school every day (as does Molly) and sooner or later, someone creepy will clumsily chat her up, or say something offensive and I will not be there to rescue her.
Overprotecting your children leaves them anxious, uncertain and a pain in the arse to live with. I know because I was overprotected. I was that infuriating roommate who didn’t clean the bath and drank the last of the milk because my parents kept me in a little bubble; such was their fear of the world. Thanks to my college friends showing their disapproval by saying: ‘Clean the f***ing bath you lazy bint,’ I learned and became much better at communal living. But my dad in particular was very anxious about the world and what people might think, so whenever I tried to go out with my friends (believe it or not I had a few), he would mutter darkly about ‘wicked people’. He never told me what these ‘wicked people’ might look like or sound like but assured me they existed. One one occasion I got horribly drunk on cheap sherry and puked but managed to do so in the sink over the dirty dishes. In terms of teenage rebellion it was pretty mild, but from my parents reaction you would have thought I’d been caught under a pile of men doing sex AND crack. And in retrospect, their anger was more about the fact that I had been ‘disobedient’ than indulging in harmful behaviour. Having learned I couldn’t talk to my parents, I became far more adept at hiding my harmful behaviour. Overprotective parenting leads to sneaky behaviour. I couldn’t talk to my parents about the stuff that really bothered me and I knew my dad in particular was concerned about my ‘innocence’ so I learned to lie better.
I grew into an anxious and insecure young woman, unsure of my place in the world, afraid of speaking up, convinced that if I took a small risk, then something terrible would happen. In fact I was one big Moro reflex. Even now if my boyfriend suddenly springs something on me, like ‘Let’s go to Reykjavik,’ I instinctively do ‘a Moro’ and immediately freeze, thinking of a million reasons why we couldn’t possibly.
‘Behold the wholly sanitized childhood without skinned knees or the occasional C in history,’ says Psychology Today who recently published a piece arguing that helicopter parents are raising A Nation of Wimps. Parents are so geared towards academic achievement, they fail to teach their special snowflakes any actual life skills. Or allow them to fail without rushing in to rescue them.
I met one such parent on University Open Day. She pointed out most forcefully that her teenage son was a ‘poet’ and would he get some support if he worked on his first collection while continuing his studies? I asked the boy what kind of poetry he wrote, and crimson faced, he muttered something that sounded like ‘feelings’. The poor boy – with a mother like that, I’m sure he had plenty of them.
This is why I was determined that both my children would be confident, self-actualised people. To do this their father and I made sure they went to pre-school to develop their social skills (and yes so I could work) and I’ve tried very hard to make sure that I show my faith in them – that they can do things and if they fail, it’s fine as long as they try. And I want them both to stride into the world, not tiptoe. Girls particularly alas, still absorb the message that they must be ‘likeable’, not take up too much space, not shout, or laugh too loudly, not to enjoy their sexuality too much – be sexy, yes but for boys, not for their own pleasure. So to be this confident adult I believe Lara needs to test herself, to be able to brush off an unwanted approach, to explore on her own, to tell someone if necessary to f*** off or she’ll scream her head off. ‘I got into some bad situations because I was far too polite,’ I told her. Don’t put up with some berk sitting next to you and being offensive because you don’t want to be thought of as ‘rude’. As this piece brutally explains, the overprotective parent is really really messing up their kids.
Take. A step. BACK. You’re damaging your child’s damn brain. Literally. What them young churrins need the most is the chance to be stressed, to be scared, and to be unsure of what’s going to happen next. They need to learn to adapt and grow and most importantly, they need to realize that while something might suck a whole hell of a lot, it’s not going to kill them. They need the opportunity to develop the tough skin that will get them through the black hole of awfulness that is adulthood. Do you want a fierce, self-actualized, confident kid or a floundering, mess of insecurity and self-doubt?
I really didn’t want to. But on this occasion I had to rush into town and rescue Lara and Molly from having hot chocolate in a café while gleefully going through their purchases.