Judging other parents is like flatulence: we all do it, but none of us will admit to it. So let’s just be honest, every parent judges every other parent. Parenting is something most of us experience, and even if we don’t experience it directly, we observe it. We all believe we’re experts at it, but in reality we’re very unsure about how to do it properly. Before I had my children, I certainly had my own idea of the brand of parent I would be; and now that I am one, the reality couldn’t be further removed. We only held out on a soother for 3 weeks, I do let them watch TV to get a half hour of quietness, I do bribe them with sugar and we eat very little organic food. Whether it is on a big or small level, there’s a myriad of parenting decisions that other parents (and even non-parents) feel obligated to judge.
One of the recent decisions we faced was whether or not to allow our “nearly” 6 year old daughter Molly to walk to the shop nearby our house to buy milk. Now, to put this in context the shop is around a 1 minute walk away, but it does involve negotiating a reasonably busy road within our housing estate. It’s a big decision (for us, not her) but it’s been on the cards for a while. We’ve traipsed up and down the route with her countless times and now we have a determined five year old girl who wants to throw off the stifling shackles of parental protection and walk on her own. In Germany, Denmark and Japan this tendency of youth to strive for independence and autonomy is not only encouraged, it is an expectation. German parents don’t hover around they children in playgrounds, they huddle together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who hang off a wooden pole 20 feet above a sand pit. They aren’t ignoring their children; they just trust them. In Japan, on the first day of playschool, kids walk or take public transport to school and in Denmark it is common for children to start walking or taking the bus to school alone at around age six. These countries continue to support children’s autonomy whereas here in Ireland a trend towards greater caution seems to be spreading. So when molly asked to come running with me, one of my concerns was the reaction of other parents. They would inevitably make judgements and presume I was putting her at (perceived) risk. Well meaning parents would whisper their concerns that I was putting her health, not to mention her athletic ability at risk because kids can’t run long distances; it’s too dangerous? Or is it….. The scientific community provides little guidance on the subject. There is no evidence to suggest how much running is good or bad for kids. In fact children have been running marathons since the 1970s. Wesley Paul not only ran the 1977 New York city marathon he completed it in 3 hours and 31 seconds at 8 years of age!!!! He then went on to break the 3 hour barrier at age 9, a time most adult runners can only dream of. His motivation – “ I just wanted to run with my father”. More recently Keelan Glass, age 6, became the youngest girl on record to complete a half marathon. Her time 2:47:30 also earned her a single-age world record, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. She was pushed in a stroller by her parents while they trained for triathlons. Eventually they let her ride her bike alongside them before finally allowing her to start running.
If running long distances isn’t harmful to young children, what is generating this fear amongst parents? The reality is that many adults find running difficult, dutiful and sore. They see it as a punishment and they don’t want to impose this on kids. But is it fair to project our societal bias on kids, who, if given the right context, will run for hours at play with the natural fun and freedom. So molly now brings me for a run a few times a week – whenever we have time and her busy schedule can fit me in – and we trot at her pace and she chats and sometimes stops. The last day we covered just less than 2 miles and who knows when she’ll want to go again but I’ll be happy to be her running partner. We’ve taken one small step, we have let her pop to the shop by herself. The first time she did this, she came back beaming, proudly handing me the milk she bought herself. So I decided there was no need to tell her that her mother was out on road hiding behind parked cars and trees, watching her the whole time.