According to figures obtained by BBC Breakfast last week, more than 500 people were arrested in England and Wales in 2014–15 for leaving children unattended. In the majority of cases, the children concerned were aged ten or under, but some parents got into trouble for leaving their 15-year-olds home alone. It’s hard not to conclude that the police are being a bit heavy-handed, trying to take on responsibility for something that properly belongs to parents.
As regular readers will know, Caroline and I have four children aged 12 and under and we don’t see eye to eye about this. Her level of anxiety about the various disasters that might befall them is about average for a west London yummy mummy, whereas I’m at the intensely relaxed end of the spectrum.
For instance, it’s our 15th wedding anniversary coming up and I suggested we spend a long weekend in Les Trois Vallées. We both used to ski regularly, but since Sasha was born in 2003 we’ve been only once, and that was a disaster.
‘What about the kids?’ she asked.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘Sasha can look after the boys and we can get a neighbour to check up on them. They’ll be fine.’
If looks could kill, I would have resembled an extra in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
One of the reasons I’m OK about leaving the children to fend for themselves is because my parents were so cavalier with me. When I was ten I was doing a paper round and walking to and from primary school by myself. Admittedly this was in Highgate, not Peckham, but the school was over a mile away and the journey involved plenty of main roads and a shortcut through a council estate. It would never have occurred to my parents to put me on a bus, let alone take me in the car.
I remember coming back from school one day to find two intruders in the empty house. Luckily, they ran out of the back door when I let myself in the front, but it could have gone another way. When my mum got home about an hour later, the police were already there, dusting for fingerprints — I dialled 999 as soon as I realised we’d been burgled.
I suppose in some families this would have led to a reassessment of the childcare arrangements, but not ours. I enjoyed the whole experience immensely and it confirmed my mother’s view that I was capable of looking after myself. In any event, as she said: ‘Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.’
I think my mum had the right idea, but I’ve never been able to convince Caroline of this and I can see her point. One of the main arguments for being a laissez-faire parent is that it teaches your children to weigh up risks and act responsibly, but my own upbringing didn’t exactly have that effect. When I first studied economics at university I was amazed to discover that rational human beings were only allowed to have two attitudes to risk: risk-averse and risk-neutral. ‘What about risk-positive?’ I asked. My economics tutor gave me a puzzled look and I explained that if a particular activity was dangerous — if there was a high chance it could lead to sudden, violent death — I found it more appealing. ‘That doesn’t fall within the spectrum of rational behaviour,’ he said.
It was several years before I was able to persuade Caroline that it was OK for her to go away for the weekend, leaving the kids in my care. When she eventually did, she phoned and texted throughout and I told her everything was fine. I thought it was, too, but on her return she discovered that my definition of ‘fine’ wasn’t the same as hers. The three boys merrily told her that on Saturday morning I’d taken them to Westfield, the second- largest shopping centre in the UK, and promptly ‘lost’ them. That was a complete exaggeration, I protested. I’d only mislaid them for half an hour and I found them all playing video games in the Apple store, as happy as Larry. Needless to say, she hasn’t taken another weekend break since.
I’m still holding out hope for the ski trip. We have a new au pair called Anna, employed solely to look after our Vizsla puppy, and I think I’ve convinced Caroline that if we leave the dog with her sister, Anna can cope with the children. Now all I have to do is persuade her I won’t be too ‘risk-positive’ on the slopes.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.