Friday, 8 August 2014

When are children old enough to travel alone?

Earlier today, I listened to an interesting radio debate about whether children should be taught to travel on their own from an early age.

There's been a lot of media attention about the mother (no mention of the father even though there is one) who was refused a Eurostar ticket for her 11 year old daughter, who would be travelling alone. 

The mother, Anne Atkins, defended her decision to allow her daughter to travel to Paris (and be met at the other end by an older sibling) because she had been travelling alone on buses and trains since the age of 7, and had been walking to and from school - and crossing two roads - since the age of 6. She said she encouraged her children to travel independently and believed it fostered a sense of adventure and developed their independent spirit.

I remember years ago travelling back from Germany on the train. It was a journey I made every few months, and took about 20 hours. It involved getting a train from Hannover to the Hook of Holland, a busy ferry terminal, catching an overnight ferry to Harwich, then another train to London, before travelling back up north.

On one occasion I met a 10 year old boy, Peter, who was travelling alone.  His father (who was in the forces) had put him on the train in Germany with written instructions on how to get home.  I realised he was a bit nervous about travelling, so took him under my wing and we travelled back together all the way to London where I put him in a taxi and gave him instructions on how to get to his final destination (can't remember where).  It's funny, because by that stage I felt quite protective of him and hesitated about putting him in the taxi but from that point we were travelling in different directions.

Another time I was at a children's party, and a mum who I'd just met for the first time, was telling everyone how her son (aged 9) had just travelled by train from Liverpool to Edinburgh to stay with relatives. She said he'd been walking to the shops - about a 10 minute - walk since the age of 5, and had travelled on buses and trains several times without mishap.  She felt very strongly that he needed to learn to be self-sufficient and be able to find his own way around.

I was a bit shocked at the time, but when I thought back to my own childhood I was walking to the shops from about 6 and walked to school on my own from a very early age.  We used to play outdoors all the time, and would roam unhindered around the neighbourhood, going to the park or nearby playgrounds until tea-time when we would make our way home.

Even so, I've never encouraged my daughters to travel alone. These days we're so much more aware of the dangers for children, although I've never seen any evidence that proves it's worse than when I was a child.  We've had the stranger danger talks when they were younger, and talked through different scenarios about what they would do if they needed help, but even so our local public transport is pretty poor so if they've needed to go anywhere I've generally taken them in the car.  Have I mollycoddled them too much?

The Teenager, who is 17 now, has always been fiercely independent and first asked if she could walk home alone from her after-school netball club in Year 5 (so aged about 9 or 10). We lived about 5 minutes from the school, but even so my heart was in my mouth every time she did it. I was worried about her safety obviously but also, if I'm honest, about what other parents would think.  Would they think I was a lazy parent? Irresponsible?

She's also been using local public transport since the age of 11.  The first time she travelled alone was on a day when I was at work but her school had an Inset day. She caught the bus to a nearby town to visit a friend but didn't tell me until she'd arrived, when she texted to say she'd arrived safely.

When I started a new job last November, which meant leaving early and getting home late, one of the considerations we had to make was about how Tall Daughter would get to and from school.   There's no direct bus route, so apart from one day a week when I work from home she walks the mile to and from school on her own.  She's not as confident or as independent as her older sister, and as she's 14 you might think there's nothing to worry about, but I still feel concerned.

I don't know what the answer is.  Would it have been easier if she had walked to school from an earlier age? Should I have encouraged them to do more on their own? When do parents stop feeling guilty?

What about you, do your children travel anywhere on their own? Do you think we mollycoddle our children these days?