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Benign Neglect or Eternal Vigilance? Which parent are you? March 25, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Early Childhood Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Professor Karen Malone

As the issue of children’s freedom, mobility and bad parenting hits the headlines once again (see Sydney Morning Herald, February 9, 2012), I see the same arguments recycled and positions once again polarised. There are those who believe parents who allow their children to walk the streets alone are negligent and should be told so and those who reminisce of a rich and free childhood lost and question parents who bubble wrap their children. I believe this either/or position is not so helpful in a debate that is fuelled fundamentally by a desire for parents to protect and keep their children safe. The questions is though are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable? Is there the possibility of satisfying both positions – children’s freedom and safety?

Picture this. It is 2005, and I arrive for the first time in Tokyo city. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten age children walking along the street in front of me. The school bags on their back reveal they are on their way home from school. They are oblivious to my presence, as they busy themselves with the task of crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick curbs and chatting amongst themselves. There is not a supervising parent in sight, no walking school bus conductor, no older siblings.

Children in Tokyo

Children in Tokyo

As a parent myself I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety. Eventually, I have to go on to my meeting and leave them. When I arrive at my destination I recount my experience to my Japanese colleague and exclaim, “there were no adults watching out for them”. He was a little taken aback – “What do you mean, no adults?”  There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians – the city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” Subsequent visits and research I have conducted in Japan with colleagues has identified that on average 80% of primary age Japanese children walk to school, where in Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40%. This begs the question: Why Tokyo? What happens in this society that makes it so different to Australia?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves at eight years old in a special place and to describe that place to me. The majority recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children out of earshot of parents, with the often lasting request of parents ringing in their ear –be home before dinner:

“I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma aged 43);

“My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard aged 36);

“There was a playground at the end of our street and I would go there to play” (Catherine aged 27);

“There was a creek near our house and we would go and search for tadpoles, I wouldn’t go home till it was dark” (Mark aged 31);

“We use to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew aged 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ‘benign neglect’ and for many of us growing up in baby boomer suburbia this was our experience of childhood. We may look back and wonder how our parents could let us roam so freely, but good or bad it is these experiences that shaped the people we grew up to be. Self-reliant, independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors – these were just some of the positive outcomes. Next step in the seminar I asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no: “I would love to let my kids play outside, but I just can’t trust other people, there are just too many dangers these days. Actually, sometimes I think back and I can’t believe my parents let me do the things we use to do” (Richard aged 36); “No way, too risky” (Sara aged 38).

Essentially the big issue pervading the psyche of our parents around children’s independence in the streets (and it seems now our police) is the concern of ‘stranger danger’ and the likelihood of child abductions. For many parents the only defence is eternal vigilance. The irony is, that when you look at the statistics on abductions almost all are by family members, and the number of abductions has been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer typically like Andrew (39): “I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between benign neglect and eternal vigilance? If we look to communities in Japan and many Scandinavian countries where children’s independent mobility is high we can see there are possibilities to support that middle ground. While research reveals parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase children’s safety. For example, in inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre. These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment by that society to the belief that children being safe and being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient. It is an indicator of a civil, safe and healthy society and if lost, it not only undermines children’s quality of life but signals that all people, young and old, will have their freedom eroded. Having social trust, knowing someone is there to help you and your children if you need help, is a central outcome of this cultural commitment.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. While there is work to be done to increase children’s independence, again it was reassuring when our recent results from a historical comparison of children’s independent mobility (CIM) in suburban Sydney showed that in the past ten years CIM has stayed stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to ways to get children out of the house and back to the parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

For further information on the comparative study of Australia and Japan children’s independent mobility: Malone, K. A (2011) Editorial: Changing Global childhoods: the impact on children’s independent mobility, Global Studies of Childhood (Special Issue) Volume 1 Number 3, pp. 161-166.

Children in Tokyo

Children in Tokyo

Professor Karen Malone PhD, BEd (Hons), DipEd School of Education, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown NSW Chair and Founder, UNICEF Child-Friendly Asia Pacific Regional Network Email: k.malone@uws.edu.au CFAP: www.childfriendlyasiapacific . Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney, and is a member of the School’s Centre for Educational Research. She is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities. In the past ten years Dr Malone has attracted over 2 million dollars in research grants, awards and consultancies and has published 5 books, 14 book chapters and over 50 refereed publications focusing on child friendly cities, childhood sociology, early childhood, children’s participation, children’s environments, environmental education, urbanisation and participatory and child centered research methodologies. Her most recent research grants include designing and implementing a national accreditation program for UNICEF and the Republic of Kazakhstan, Implementing a child friendly cities project in San Pedro, Chile funded by Foundacion Minerva Econdia, Dapto Dreaming a child friendly participatory research project for Stockland developers, and the Smith Family project: How child friendly is my community? She is currently coordinating seven international research teams in collaboration with the UK Policy Institute to replicate Hillman’s seminal project Children’s Independent Mobility.


1. linvo - March 28, 2012

I sense there is a trend to regard being expected to look out for other people’s children as being taken advantage of. Used as a free child-minder. It is expected that parents supervise their kids at all times to prevent others feeling a responsibility to do so. This applies to both parents and people without kids. It is a pretty sad state of mind, in my opinion. It’s as if kids are not regarded as real members of society but are merely their parents’ assets without any value to anyone else.

2. Benign Neglect in Positive Parenting « - May 2, 2012
3. Michele - August 7, 2012

As a parent of two young daughters I follow the discussion on childrens ‘freedom’ with interest. My childhood of carefree, unsupervised play is one which sadly, most young people in urban areas will not experience. The statistics tell us that our children are in no greater danger than they were 30 years ago, however the parenting practices of my generation do not reflect this. Not only are many of us more fearful as parents, we fill our children’s afternoons/evenings with structured activities which rob them of precious time to imagine, explore and just be.

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