A fourteen year old girl was raped in Ilkley on Sunday. It was around 5 in the afternoon as she walked her dog in the woods at the end of our road. Two youths followed her in to the woods and raped her.
The first inkling that I had that anything was wrong was when the police helicopter was out over our house on Sunday evening. It's not unusual, particularly on sunny days. Ilkley is picturesque and fills up when when the weather is good with people picnicking by the river or visiting the lido. Then, on Monday morning I drove passed the woods. The entrance was sealed off with police tape and was being guarded by two officers. It stayed that way all day.
By tea time the jungle drums were beating and whilst there was nothing on the local news that night, I received my first text on the subject. My friend had heard that someone had been raped and we pieced together what we each knew and feared the worse. I am ashamed to admit it but I was secretly hoping that if there had been a rape then the victim would be an adult. On Tuesday the rumours were rife and the word was that it was a child that had been attacked. This was confirmed that evening on the local news.
My heart goes out to the family. The horror of what has befallen them is unimaginable. But I have three girls, two of whom have freedom to roam almost at will and of course at times like this you turn inwardly to protect your own. And now I must readdress the freedoms and boundaries that I had previously considered acceptable in light of this attack.
How much freedom you give your child is a thorny issue. Everyone has a different view on what is appropriate. As my elder two reached years 4 and 5, I decided that they could walk to school on their own. It's an easy walk with only one major road which is covered by a pedestrian crossing. There were various factors that influenced my decision, not least the nature of the children themselves. They have always walked everywhere with me and so I knew that their road sense was fairly well developed. Also, they are only 17 months apart in age and have always done everything together. Whereas I would have been uncomfortable letting either one of them walk alone, I decided that there was safety in numbers. I was also heavily influenced by a friend who has three sons, the youngest of whom is the same age as my eldest. I watched with great interests as her children spread their wings and used that as a gauge as to what I believed was safe.
And so off they set to school. They waved goodbye at the bottom of the drive and then they were gone. My heart was in my mouth and it was all I could do not to follow them, hiding behind lamp posts like some cartoon character. I knew that school would ring promptly if they didn't arrive and I hadn't rung to say that they were sick. But all day I had this knot in my stomach if I allowed myself to dwell on what I had let them do.
Of course they were absolutely fine. They grew in confidence as a result of their new found independence and I regularly received reports from other mothers as to how polite they were or how sensibly they crossed the road. For that is one of the many benefits of living in a town like this with children. They really can't go very far without someone who knows me seeing them and reporting back on their behaviour.
But not everyone approved of my action. Some people looked downright horrified when they learned that I was allowing them to take this step and if I am honest the disapproval of other mothers played almost as large a part in my decision making process as my own concerns for their safety. It soon became apparent that my girls had far more freedom than most of their friends and that many believed that I had over stepped the mark. But I knew I was right. I firmly believe that you cannot wrap your children up and that they have to let them go in a controlled environment to enable them to develop the skills necessary to deal with day to day risks.
After that, the freedoms came thick and fast. Season tickets for the lido. Trips to the park. Taking themselves to ballet lessons in town. Walking home from friends houses. They have never abused the trust that I placed in them so we just kept testing out new things. As time as has gone on, many of their friends have caught up with them and now some are allowed to do things that mine still are not.
This summer, with the eldest at high school and the second about to go, we seemed to have reached a level of independence that I was totally comfortable with. And then, bang, this horrifying incident takes place right on our doorstep and suddenly I must redo my risk assessment.
My first response is to hold on to them and not let them out at all. Obviously this is an over reaction. The perpetrators are long gone. My girls did not wander in the woods before and certainly will so not be doing now. Then, I decide that they can go out but not on their own but this is not practical. They are at different schools with different friends. They have to spend some time walking to places on their own. And whilst they are aware of what has happened (although thankfully the full horror of rape is not something that they will be able to fully comprehend for a long time to come)and I have again had my stranger danger conversation with them, I have to let them go within the controlled and confined boundaries that they had before.
Of course one's approach to freedom is all relative. Those parents that raised their eyebrows at me early on all have children younger than mine or too big an age gap to allow the younger child to accompany the elder. By the time my fourth child hits 11, I dread to think how lax I will have become but clearly the parents of those of his friends who are eldest children or even only children will no doubt be horrified in their turn.
The next hurdle for me to overcome is allowing the eldest to baby sit for the others. We are not there yet, other than the odd occasion when I nip out for something and cannot face getting all four of them in the car for a five minute trip, but it really won't be long and again I suspect I will be amongst the first to let it happen. Slowly at first and in a very controlled way but steadily moving on and letting go. Isn't that part of what parenting is all about? Allowing your children to grow?