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99-153 Doc Overprotection articles


'Stranger danger' warning to young - draws criticism

CHILDREN as young as two should be taught the rudiments of personal safety and advised never to talk to strangers, a children's charity will say today.

In a campaign aimed at highlighting "stranger danger", the NSPCC alsos advise parents never to leave young children alone in a car - even for just a few minutes - and never to allow children aged under eight to go out on their own.

The initiative has been timed to coincide with the school summer holidays. The charity is also appealing for everyone to keep an eye on children playing outside and to call police or social workers if they see anything suspicious.


3rd August 1999

Paranoid parents 'denying children freedom to play

CHILDREN are being denied the opportunities for play enjoyed by previous generations because of their parents' paranoia, research will confirm this week. An exaggerated fear of harm from strangers, worries about traffic and unwillingness to let a child do anything with risk attached are blamed for unprecedented over-protectiveness.

Concern that children are growing up less independent and without the social skills that come from interactive play was heightened yesterday by child safety advice from the NSPCC. Under the heading "NSPCC warns of risks to children this summer", the charity mounted a campaign that was criticised by other organisations for compounding parents' fears.

Jim Harding, NSPCC chief executive, said: "The greatest fear of parents is that their child will be abducted and murdered by a stranger. It is important for us all to alert children to the possible dangers they may face outdoors this summer, without causing fear or panic."

[ Translate: 'we need to keep the momentum on our alarmist fundraising drive going, what better way to grab the headlines and keep the funds rolling in during August than this ?' ]

Other societies were concerned that the NSPCC campaign would fuel parental fears about molestation by strangers that already border on the irrational. The risk of a child being murdered by a stranger is no greater today than it was in the late Sixties, when children had much greater freedom to play. A child is in much greater danger of being harmed by a member of its family than a stranger. About six or seven children each year are murdered by strangers but more than 80 are killed by parents, carers or someone known to the family. The chances of a child aged one to four being killed by a stranger are less than one in a million, and have fallen by a third since 1988, while the risk to a child aged five to 15 is lower still.

Tiffany Jenkins, a founder member of the Families for Freedom group, which campaigns against the over-protection of children, said the NSPCC would worsen people's already distorted impression of the dangers. "They are deliberately scaremongering parents with these fairytale fears when their fears are already way too high."

June McKerrow, director of Mental Health Foundation, a charity that has commissioned research on children's well-being, said: "We don't need any more of these messages. If anything, the whole thing has already been taken too far."

Tim Gill, director of the Children's Play Council, said there were practical steps that could be taken to improve safety and reassure parents that their children could venture out to play. "The biggest thing that has changed has not been the threat from strangers but the risk from traffic - not merely to playing in the street but to getting around on your own.

Death rates for child pedestrians are among the highest in western Europe. The latest figures show that in 1997, 17,000 children under 15 were seriously injured by cars while playing on the street. Of these 133 died and thousands were left scarred with head and leg injuries. More boys than girls, 65 per cent, were run over.


What our children really need is a regime of benign neglect

The message in the new policy is: don't trust anybody because nobody trusts you

_Picture this. A man in his mid-thirties, bearded, wearing slightly scruffy jeans, is following two children of about eight and six down a suburban street. They are oblivious to their pursuer - if they seem on the point of turning round to look, he ducks out of sight into a garden. The little convoy turns around the corner. What do you see? A potential child molester tracking his next victims?

Actually, it was my neighbour following his children the first time they were allowed to the corner shop by themselves, making sure they were safe crossing the road.

We parents labour under a huge burden of worry about our kids in the modern world of car accidents, child abductions and murders, and careless or even violent childminders. No wonder concerned dads follow their offspring around the corner. No wonder mums ferry the kids to school in their four-wheel drive, all but armour-plated vehicles, accounting for two-thirds of the rush hour congestion in our towns and cities.

Reports like yesterday's warning on "stranger danger" from the NSPCC can only fuel such parental fears. The charity's checklist of advice is actually completely sensible. But to link basic steps for safeguarding children to the annual toll of six children murdered by strangers each year, as it did, is to move from common sense to hysteria. And we are edging towards a state of mind out of proportion to the - very real - dangers.

The typical British response to a photograph of a smiling bare-chested man with a small child, recently shown to people in different countries in a survey, was that it must be a paedophile. Italians were far more likely to see it as father and son.

This is the climate which has led to an entirely serious proposal to tag small children in supermarket creches, employing an extension of the scanning technology used to keep track of goods on the shelves. The supermarket concerned clearly believes parents will welcome it, and will be more likely to shop at its stores.

In fact, everywhere you look there are new plans to monitor and control children ever more closely. Every hour of our children's time must be observed and must be known. When does this obsession with monitoring childcare spill over from an entirely understandable and commendable concern for children's safety into molly-coddling that undermines their ability to learn how to fend for themselves, or, worse, exercise control of their behaviour?

After all, Jeremy Bentham's vision of the perfect utilitarian prison was one where the warder could spy at any time on the activities of any prisoner, like a malign spider at the centre of a web.

Our increasingly controlling and utilitarian vision of childhood explains the urge to educate at an earlier and earlier age. Nurseries and schools are in danger of being turned into knowledge factories in which our toddlers are the means of production, transforming gobbets of knowledge into increased national output. The people who care for them, chosen by parents on the basis of trust, will become subject to an authoritarian official inspection regime. The figure of the government inspector is not, in general, a loved or even respected one. The bureaucrat with powers over other people's jobs is all too often a petty tyrant.

This is taking the idea of the nanny state all too literally. Obviously a balance has to be struck. We must take care to keep our children safe, to educate them well, even ensure they are happy. The Government has to set minimum standards for childcare. Parents have to take all sensible precautions. And we must accept that there are bad carers and bad parents and bad people out there.

But there are costs to micro-managing every detail of children's lives. All those of us who are adults today will have experienced a much freer childhood than our own kids do now. We wandered around alone, caught buses and were sent to the shops at a younger age. We got into scrapes, or even danger. We learnt to cope. Now we are trying to teach our own children to cope at the same time as trying to preserve them from taking any of the risks they are meant to learn to handle. I don't believe it is possible. Experience can not be taught. They will have to cope later, and they will do so less well. This is not to argue sentimentally in favour of the school of hard knocks, but rather to point out that disappointment lies in store in any attempt to escape this trade-off between providing children with perfect safety and giving them the experiences that will teach them to protect themselves. It is an inescapable pain of parenthood that you can not do everything for your children. In fact, the best principle to apply in steering them safely towards adulthood is probably one of benign neglect.

As a teenager I kept a notebook in which I listed all the draconian laws I would pass to make the country a better place when I was running it. Luckily for the country, I gave up my youthful ambition to pursue a career in politics. But you get the impression many members of the present government were equally obnoxious as adolescents and, worse, have kept their notebooks.

The message in the new policy, like the message in warnings of stranger danger, is the same for parents and children alike. It is don't trust anybody because nobody trusts you.

What a sad and dangerous country Britain has become.


Comment in the Sunday Times...

Only last week, it happened that I was walking back from the post office when I heard someone screaming for help. I crossed the road, wondering if it was just a game, and found a young boy hanging by one arm from the balcony where he had been playing. Beneath him was a 12ft drop onto concrete. I caught him but the mother who eventually came out to investigate his howls released a torrent of abuse. Had I been a man, she'd have called the police. Nowadays, the only unpaid adult interested in our children is expected to be a paedophile.


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