Flea loves to swim. Loves it.
So every week, she has swimming lessons at our local YMCA pool, and has done for quite some years.
It’s fun, but chaotic.
The YMCA in our town is one of the best places to get lessons – so it’s always busy. There are two teachers, each teaching half a dozen kids at a time, and lessons every 30 minutes between 4 and 7pm most days.
You can imagine the scene. There are always a couple of dozen kids and assorted parents in the changing rooms, which date from the 1960s. There are a handful of tiny cubicles and some positively Victorian showers, but most of the parents get their kids ready in a communal changing area because it requires significantly less contortion than trying to get both of you into a cubicle without someone being elbowed in the face. It’s a chaotic scene of towels, pushchairs, hair bobbles and discarded uniforms.
During lessons, the pool is still open to the public and a few of the Mums – myself included – take the opportunity to go for a swim while the kids are in their lesson. It’s got to be better than sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair slowly melting from the heat and humidity.
It’s not the swishest of pools, and the private gym we go to during the rest of the week is substantially better laid out, with big family changing rooms and an entirely separate adults’ changing suite and pool, but the YMCA is a great community resource and Flea’s swimming teacher is brilliant. We love going there.
But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that one of the Mums brings her son into the female changing rooms with her. There’s nothing unusual in that when a boy is two, three, four years old. But this kid is nine. And bearing any disability that I don’t know about, I can’t help but feel it’s skirting on the edge of being inappropriate. I don’t think a boy of nine has any business getting changed in a female communal changing room when there’s a perfectly good male changing room next door.
Maybe it’s just me? I do understand that it can be worrying to let children out of your sight. Truly, I do. I’m as neurotic as the next woman. But I also believe it’s neglecting your duty as a parent just as much if your child isn’t on a path to independence – and that allowing kids to navigate potentially worrying but probably safe situations on their own is a big part of that.
I spoke with Flea’s Dad about this – occasionally if I’m working, he takes Flea to her swimming lesson and since he hates to swim, he needs to decide what to do. When Flea was five or six, he took her into the male changing rooms and changed her there. But since she turned seven, he escorts her to the door of the girls’ changing rooms, then waits for her at the poolside exit. That seems reasonable to me – there are plenty of other adults and kids around if Flea did need help, and in the event of a crisis, she knows how to shout – and he’s just seconds away.
At almost nine, Flea would be mortified not to be allowed to change herself unsupervised, I think. And she enjoys being allowed these little moments of independence – whether it’s popping into the local Co-Op and buying us a loaf of bread while I wait in the car, or walking to the local park with a friend while I’m lurking, unsubtly, two minutes behind.
The truth is, whether you’re a single parent or not, these issues are going to come up with children in public places. And as Anya discusses over on her blog, it’s a really tricky balance to get right. We all want to keep our children safe – but we’re equally keen not to instil suspicion or fear into their daily lives unnecessarily.
Perhaps I’m lucky (or just naive) that I don’t worry a great deal about predators and have tended to let Flea use public bathrooms unsupervised for several years. Having said that, I did once get shouted at by a waiter in a restaurant when I let Flea go to the loo during dinner without being accompanied. My view was that I could see the bathroom door from where I was sitting, and Flea was old enough to use the bathroom and wash her hands without me – his view was that I might as well have thrown her into a pool of crocodiles for all the parenting I was doing.
What do you think – do you let your primary school aged kids use public facilities unsupervised? And what sort of things do you think about when weighing up what’s safe versus what isn’t?