Did I make cheap jibes about David Cameron leaving his daughter in a pub. What do you think? Is the pope a bigot? I said I had lost several of my children in Ikea and presume that they now just work there, living on meatballs and jam. And then I retweeted something that I had seen on Facebook about Cameron not caring for four million children. Because I am mature like that. Actually, I don't think Cameron did anything terribly wrong. Nothing happened to the child. As for Ikea, well, I imagine all sorts of small skeletons under those multicoloured balls where one cages one's offspring while going in search of "storage solutions".
It's quite refreshing to see a bit of overlord laissez faire-style parenting. We all know it goes on. Being lost is not always so bad. In fact, it can be fantastic. It can be scary, too, but the aimless stroll of the situationists is everywhere repackaged by expensive travel companies which sell "experiences". Getting lost is OK for consenting adults, but we remain entirely paranoid about children.
The idea that one may need to get lost to find one's way would mean granting children an autonomy that makes us nervous. Obviously, I am familiar with the blind terror of realising I've lost a child – but I have always found them, often happily embedded with another family. Who can blame them for these attempted escapes? When I have truly nearly lost them (as in, they nearly died, one in a bike accident one with meningitis), I had no power whatsoever. I could prevent neither of these things happening, and I have been given enough strong, sweet tea in hospitals to know the odour of shock and realise that it was coming from me. What that taught me (apart from how good NHS intensive care is) was that my own ability to assess risk was poor.
And I am not alone in that. Risk assessment is a huge industry and, on the whole, parents are terrible at separating risk from emotion (we fear snakes not cars) or values (all sports are good for you but all drugs will cause harm).
Thus I worried about my child going to a festival where drink and drugs were freely available but not about the "healthy" cycling holiday that nearly killed her. Bad things may happen but control freakery disguised as "good parenting" or "good teaching" does not stop them happening. We have to let our children take risks.
Indeed, I found myself struck by the counterintuitive advice I heard the other day from a wise man. Instead of telling our children not to talk to strangers, he suggested we do the opposite and encourage them to talk to strangers. This man was Hugh Cunningham, a social historian and emeritus professor at the University of Kent.
We were discussing the notion of childhood "innocence" and the pervasive presumption that everyone is a paedophile. It is a kind of madness. It does nothing to stop paedophiles and even less to stop the vast amount of sexual abuse that occurs within families. All this fear has been transferred to the web – pornography and now the social-networking site Habbo Hotel, which according to my jaded 11-year-old is not as bad as some, seems to be peopled entirely by paedophiles. Before trillions of you complain that I should not let my child online, remember that I can't let her out because of paedophiles In Real Life. Remember that? This spiralling anxiety is pumped into parents non-stop. These cultural steroids of threat skew our perception of risk even more. Just say no.
Far from being a helicopter parent, I am more of a hovercraft. From another era. Often‑bumpy but hoping we will get there in the end. For I can afford to give my children a degree of freedom; and I mean literally afford it. "At risk" families, or the mythical 120,000 problem families whose multiple difficulties are going to be outsourced to local authorities and, er, private firms, can't afford to get lost. They are lost.
The risks taken to build up moral fibre: rugby, skiing, orienteering courses, indeed the entire gap-year industry sustained by the thrusting middle-classes, are not taken in families where everything already feels out of control, where anything may happen and yet somehow everything remains the same. So yet again we are in this madly unequal situation where the virtues of taking risks belong to the comfortably off, but the risks taken by the poorest, from smoking to eating sugar, are now vices.
Hands-on parenting has now to be taught to the lower orders. The new prescriptive curriculum is all about linear learning. There is no room to meander. We cannot allow the risks even of letting teachers teach. All learning must be directed and disciplined. This is life as lived via some centrally controlled sat nav.
Am I really suggesting that we allow children to get lost? To lose themselves even? Yes. For that is how we learn. Freedom costs and freedom is a risk. But losing oneself and sometimes letting go is a luxury that should not belong only to our feral overclass, surely?
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