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Swallows, Amazons... prisoners

July 15 2000, author & source unknown

Girls and boys go out to play... Not any more they don't. When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the lanes, fields, farmyards and woods for miles around our house were our playground. We knew not to accept lifts from strangers and to ride our bikes sensibly when cars were around.

Beyond that, we were left to run our own risks, have our own adventures and extricate ourselves from our own scrapes. As long as we were back by teatime, our parents were happy.

How different life was then. I, like every mother of a little girl, have read with mounting dread the news of the probable abduction of Sarah Payne. I know that, like the Payne parents, my husband and I are in a minority in allowing our children to play unsupervised in the fields around our house. We want to believe that we are still doing the right thing: allowing them freedom, encouraging their independence. But could we live with ourselves if the worst happened?

Next week, our seven-year-old daughter leaves for her first summer camp: a *Secret Seven* activity holiday, in which the children follow a trail of clues that will lead to baddies, treasure or whatever. I am half-envious, because I imagine that it will be great fun. But there is also a poignant realisation that her packaged week at camp is only a faint echo of a liberty lost to most children of her age.

For the other 51 weeks of the year, they lead lives so suffocating that Enid Blyton's young characters would have either escaped or expired.

We have always believed that growing up should be a process of weaning from parental control and supervision. It's not that we don't worry. A few weekends ago, we let the girls go for their first long walk in the country near our new house. Unknown to them, we followed at a distance, peeking over hedges to check that they were taking their responsibility seriously.

Has life become more dangerous for our children? It is an almost universal belief. My mother claims that she never thought about us being abducted, yet a recent study in the London borough of Camden found that 90 per cent of parents are now "very" or "quite" worried about the possible abduction or molestation of their children.

There are eight and a half million children aged between five and 16 in Britain, and how often do you read of one being snatched? It is because the crime is so rare that newspapers give it so much publicity when it happens. Statistically, your child is more likely to get ten A* GCSEs than to be abducted by a stranger.

About 500 children are abducted each year - the vast majority of them by one of their own parents during a divorce battle. Children aged between five and 16 are the population group least likely to be murdered. When they are, the murderer is almost always someone known to them.

As Mayer Hillman, of the Policy Studies Institute, points out: "Far more are killed by strangers behind the steering wheel of a motor vehicle than are killed by strangers on foot."

Although Britain has the safest roads in Europe, there have still been 200,000 children killed or seriously hurt on the roads in the past 20 years, nearly two-thirds when they were walking or cycling. The danger of traffic is parents' biggest worry after abduction - and probably a more soundly based one. In the past two decades, car traffic has almost doubled and vehicle speeds have risen, too. The fact that more children have not been killed or injured reflects the fact that they have been withdrawn from the danger - usually into the very cars they fear - not that the danger has lessened.

According to the latest National Travel Survey, only 1 per cent of five to ten-year-olds and 5 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds cycle to school. It is not that they don't want to. A recent survey by the Hampshire County Council found that 97 per cent of children would cycle to school if there were better facilities. In the few areas with "safe routes", 50 per cent more children are allowed to go to school on their own.

As well as making our streets safer through traffic calming and removing 'bull-bars' from cars, we should also think about the damage done to children by being imprisoned at home. They are far less fit than they used to be: compared with 20 years ago, schoolchildren cycle 40 per cent less and walk 25 per cent less. We are storing up a coronary heart-disease timebomb.

And their mental health suffers, too. To depict every stranger as a potential paedophile is as silly and damaging as treating every man as a potential rapist. Mayer Hillman writes: "Children's lives have been evolving in a way that mirrors the characteristics of the lives of criminals in prison. They, too, have a roof over their heads, regular meals, and entertainment provided for them, but they are not free to go out. Enforced detention, and restrictions on how they spend their time, are intended to seriously diminish the quality of their lives. But children are not criminals."

We take away our children's freedom, something which for adults would be called a right. Each time I write about this subject I get letters from fellow mothers who say they have been shunned by the parents of their children's friends because they are deemed to have an "irresponsible" attitude to safety. I say the responsible way to behave is to keep your fears in proportion, train your children to cope with danger and allow them to reclaim the streets.

I don't go quite as far as Commander Walker's telegram in *Swallows and Amazons*: "Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won't drown." [USA/UK: duffers = incompetents] But I certainly don't want my children to be duffers. And the only way they can learn not to be is to be set free from the dangerous paranoia of over-protective parenthood.


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