Raising Kids in Captivity

We went to a park in the city today – grass is so much nicer than sand

“We have to live on a compound?” G had arrived home from his look/see optimistic about a move to Doha, but he knew compound life was going to be hard to sell.

“Yes, and it has to be a company compound.” he smirked and raised an eyebrow. The double whammy. I mean what could be better than communal gated living where you all lived in exactly the same house? Communal gated living with everyone from work!

We’d avoided compound life in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Libya, and I was hoping to do the same in Qatar. I’d never understood why anyone would choose to shut themselves off like that. I wanted to live in a street with locals as my neighbours, not Bob from Accounts or Julie from HR.

G tried to point out the benefits. The trip to Doha had wet his appetite for the role he’d been offered, he knew he wanted the job.

“The kids will be able to ride their bikes down to the park and swim at the pool, AND there’s a tennis court!”

I loved the street that we lived on in Houston. We backed onto a bayou and lived at the end of the cul-de-sac. After homework was done the children would hit the street with the neighbourhood kids for t-ball, skating and shooting hoops. I’d stand in the kitchen and glance out to see a child pushing another off first base, or watch a ramp being assembled for a display of skating prowess. Fights were had, teams bonded together, and usually someone came home in tears only to head back out again. Occasionally my irrational parental radar would register as a car drove past either too slowly or too fast. Would my worst nightmare be realized by kidnapping or car crash?

“And it’s safe, so safe!” G knew he was close to sealing the deal.

It was about a week after we arrived that I decided that we would never leave compound life. On weekends the doorbell sounds off at about 9 in the morning. For the duration of the day our house moves from 16 children in various states of play to a peaceful childless zero as the little travellers move from the park to our playroom. Lemonade stands have been set up, bake sales have been had, and occasionally the phone will ring with a parent on the end of the line “is mine at yours or are they all down at the park?” They run free range with one rule, come home when the lights come on.

I never go to the compound park, my only relationship with it is the sand that comes home in socks and the pockets of shorts (logistically I have no idea how that works). Recently I wondered if I should have been at the park more? Was it irresponsible? What if my children were badly behaved? What if someone broke an arm, or worse, broke someone else’s arm?

On the weekend at Blogfest13 I listened to a great talk by Professor Tanya Byron. I was completely awestruck by her ability to speak off the cuff, there were so many things she said that have stayed with me, but this one really struck a chord.

“Right, I want you to think about your favourite place to play as a child” she asked a packed auditorium. “Okay, if it was outside I want you to put your hand up”.

The entire room raised their hand.

“Now, how many of you had your parents there watching you?”

Not one person. Not one person put their hand up.

“Now if your kids were here, what would they have answered?”

There was silence.

I looked behind me and saw a room full of British women make a collective thought.

“You’re raising kids in captivity.” she said.

A girlfriend of mine admitted this morning that she’d left her kids at the park on the weekend and immediately felt guilty. She didn’t feel guilty for leaving her children, she felt guilty that she may have been judged by other parents.

“The kids were great, they walked back to the house themselves and I think it was really good for the bigger one to take on a bit of responsibility.”

When I thought back to my favourite place to play it was out on the street. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I fell off my bike, had a fight with the boy across the road, watched my cousins nearly kill each other with a cricket bat, and picked my way through an old wood-heap looking for interesting bits and pieces. In that time I learned how to interact with different personalities, how to find a space of my own, and more importantly how to stand up for myself (I was the youngest in the group). There were times I was deeply embarrassed, times I told lies and got caught out, and then there were some of the funniest times of my life.

I’m hoping that my own children are learning the same. Without the interference of adults it’s amazing what kids can work out.

When I think back to our discussion about moving to Doha, too much of it was about what the children would miss. I think we completely underestimated what they would gain.

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