One of the main reasons that I moved to West Cork from Brussels, over twenty years ago, was that my eldest was 12-years-old and I wanted her and her siblings to be able to go out unsupervised, as I had in my, largely suburban, childhood. I felt that the urban environment was too scary to let them loose in. I couldn’t imagine just letting her take off on her own for the afternoon, and I knew that she had to be able to do that. After all, what was I going to do? Keep my children locked up until they were 18 and then just push them out the door into a world that they had never encountered on their own?
I remember the first time I turned up our road to view the house that would become our home in West Cork. As I slowed, I saw a small boy pop out from a low bank. He must have been six years old at the most. I was surprised, and was wondering if he was lost, when an even smaller boy popped up tugging on a bit of baler twine, on the other end of which, was an over excited puppy. They waved as I went past, clearly not lost. They were just out playing at the stream. Coming from the city, it was an incredible sight: two small boys and a puppy, just wandering around. Over the years my daughters wandered around those hills and fields. I overcame my city fears and accepted not that they were safe, but that they were children whose need to climb trees and wade streams was greater than my need to never let them suffer as much as a scratch.
I was helped to let go of the obsessive need to know exactly where my girls were at all times (which is the hallmark of urban parenting) by my neighbours and friends. “Ah sure they’ll be grand,” was something I heard often when I first moved. One lovely old lady told me that when her nephew came to visit from America, she’d let him wander wherever he wanted as long as he was back in time for meals, and as long as he took the dog. “I tell him that if something happens to him, the dog will come home and fetch me, and show me where his body is,” she explained with a wry grin. “That dog keeps his mind focused on what he’s doing.”
I had my rules: never run with scissors, or with anything in your mouth, especially not balloons. Some were illogical: never take vitamins at night. Some may have been a bit overcautious: treat the water in flower vases as if it were teeming with Ebola. Some were purely local: always know if the tide is going out or in, check fields for cattle especially bulls.
I was terrified when they climbed things: cliffs, trees, jungle gyms; but I didn’t stop them. They knew that I was terrified and delighted in shouting at me down below. I would turn my back so as not to have to look, but applauded their bravery, even as I thought of how I’d have to drive an hour to Cork if they fell on their heads and broke something. I trusted them to not be any more stupid than I had been at their age, and I trusted myself to be able to comfort and mend them when they got hurt.
Seven was the appropriate age to get your first pen knife. At thirteen you were old enough to go to Cork with friends during the day. Fifteen was the age you got a tent for your birthday. The pen knife came with a lecture on having reached the age of reason, but still having to prove that you were indeed old enough to be trusted. The pen knife would be taken back if you sliced your thumb or threatened any sister with it, or left it open on the table. Much the same lecture accompanied the bus ticket to Cork, and the birthday tent.
The stream where I had seen the boys that first day became a favourite place to play. One day my youngest asked if she could go “down to the river on her own”? I replied that you had to be six years old to go down alone. She replied that she was seven. I concurred and let her go. But I told her to take the dog — just in case.