Excerpt from How to Live Dangerously

Raising children in captivity

In 1990, a distinguished social scientist by the name of Mayer Hillman published One False Move, a report into modern childhood, commissioned by the Policy Studies Institute. This report examined the lives of primary-school children, aged between eight and eleven, in five English schools, and then compared what he found with what life had been like for children at the same schools in 1970, a generation before.

What he found was that in the space of those twenty years, life had changed beyond all recognition. In the Seventies, most children were free, at eight or nine, to go out to play, to cycle in the street, to walk to school and back on their own, and, in many cases, to catch buses on their own. By the Nineties, most children were no longer trusted, or allowed, to do any of these things.

What Hillman called the 'Home Habitat' of a typical eight-year-old - the area in which they are able to travel on their own - had shrunk, in by 1990, to one-ninth of its former size.

It's not that their parents didn't realise what they were doing: three quarters of them agreed that they, as children, had had much more freedom than they allowed their own children, but they felt - like eighty percent of the general public, if you remember back a few pages - that the world had become a much more dangerous place, on account of all the people out to get the little'uns, from the mad drivers tearing down the streets, to the potential abductors lurking on every corner, to the gangs of feral teenagers out vandalising the parks, all of which seemed more serious threats to the parents of the nineties than they had to those of the seventies.

That was the nineteen-nineties. So, you can probably guess what happened next, over the next seventeen years, from the point of view of parents' fears and children's freedom. You can guess, but I'll tell you anyway: the fears got worse and the freedom got even more restricted.

There was a study by the Children's Society in 2007, and amongst the things it did was to map out the world of a typical nine-year-old girl, and how it changed over the years. In 1970, that girl would have been free to wander nine hundred and nineteen yards - just over half a mile, or a ten-minute walk - from her front door. A bizarrely precise figure, I know - however you choose to express it. The authors of the report used metric, but eight hundred and forty metres doesn’t sound any more memorable or commonsensical either. You can imagine the mother standing in the street and yelling "Susan! I said nine hundred and nineteen yards, not nine hundred and twenty: get back in your boundary this instant!" I think the figure must be some sort of average. Anyway, by 1997, the distance had shrunk to three hundred and six yards - a three-and-a-half minute walk. And then, by 2007, the boundary had moved to just outside the front gate, which is, in time terms, a no-minute walk.

At the same time, walking to school pretty much died out altogether. In 1970, eight out of ten primary school children used to walk to school. In 2007, less than one out of ten did - and they were probably the ones who lived across the road, or whose dads were the school caretakers. Most children these days are driven to school in cars, even if they live just round the corner.

As for going out to play, children today can pretty much forget it. Almost half of all parents - forty-three percent - think that children shouldn't be allowed out of the house on their own, for any reason, at all until they are fourteen years old. You'd think that perhaps the grandparents might put a word in, draw on the wisdom of age and experience and all that, tell the parents to ease up a bit, but it turns out that they're even more cautious than their offspring nowadays. One in five of the over-sixties think the thing to do is to keep the children indoors until they're at least sixteen! By which age, of course, they themselves would have been been holding down a full-time job for about ten years, working up chimneys or in boot-blacking factories or whatever it was that children did in those days.