Linda and her young sister learnt to swim in the hands of a middle-aged man who knew their mother, though not particularly well. He had no qualifications, no insurance, no supervision, and (on the evidence) no evil desires. It never occurred to anybody that he might let his hands roam where they shouldn’t roam – and one assumes it never occurred to him either. Those were the days, eh?
She and her friends rode or walked to school and back unmolested, and played in parks afterwards, and crossed roads and tramlines, and skipped safely through dark underpasses. No mobile phones to tell their mums where they were, no wrist-watches to tell the time; bikes were never stolen from where they’d been dropped on the ground.
(In the Exeter City public swimming baths a few years ago I was ticked off for taking photos of my granddaughters while they swam with their grandma. I was probably lucky not to have my name put on the sex-offenders Register.)
Out in the bush, my young brother and I rode our bikes home after school – in a convoy up the dirt road, peeling off one by one at the tracks to our respective homes, half a mile or more in from the road. During the rains, horses took the place of bikes on what was then a mud road.
Some days, I would go home with the Cameron kids, and Mrs Cameron would phone Mum to negotiate a departure time. On hot days, we’d all pile into their swimming hole. I don’t think any of us could swim, but we could stay afloat; the nearest adult was up at the house two hundred yards away.
Except for the time Bryan broke his arm galloping through the scrub [reported in The Man from Snowy River in the Archives of November 2012], nothing bad ever happened to us. Frankie once accidentally rode his bike over the tail of a brown-snake: that could have been nasty – but he was lucky, so we didn’t even bother to tell the parents.
Back then, we were allowed to look after ourselves – Linda in her seaside town, me in the bush. So was our son on this island, a generation later. So too are his children in their semi-rural Scandinavian setting. We have all learned to calculate the risk of any activity, and to act accordingly.
When Linda and I backpacked through the Middle East in our mid-20s, our mothers took comfort (well, some comfort…) in the knowledge that we probably could look after ourselves.
Surely, far too many middle-class children today are coddled – by parents, neighbourhoods, towns, provinces and nations. Toddlers whose parents leave them in cars for more than ten seconds run the risk of being abducted by social-services bureaucrats. Parents are publicly scolded for letting their kids find their own way home from schools and playgrounds. Indeed, for even letting them be at playgrounds without adult supervision. What’s next: certificates from City Hall for play-dates?
All parents know that at some stage children have to be capable of crossing streets without having their hands held. At some point car-drivers have to be trusted not to run them down, and ice-cream vendors not to rape them, and teachers not to turn comforting hugs into rabid molestation.
Sooner or later – children have to be trusted to look after themselves. Society just hasn’t got the resources to look after everybody. Already, “society” is looking after far more people than it ought to be – far more babies, far more children, far more incompetent adults, far more old folk.
Here in Cayman, half of all Civil Servants, half of all private-sector personnel-staff, and half of our Public Revenues, are assigned to protecting Caymanian citizens who aren’t even encouraged to look after themselves. Civil Servants and politicians all have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Like most other communities in the Western World, we are in danger of ending up with everybody being protected all of the time, by armies of bureaucrats whose wages are paid out of money borrowed against the taxes of future generations. In the end, everybody will have forgotten how to look after themselves.
That’s the socialist dream, isn’t it?