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Frightened of making contact

Why, asks Francis Beckett, should he discourage a small girl's affectionate embraces?

The other day little Annie saw me and rushed over to give me a warm cuddle. I was pathetically pleased. She does it every time she sees me. I'm told I should discourage her. That sort of thing can be misunderstood.

She was in the park with the rest of my daughter's class. The teacher was clearly concerned, explaining that Annie is a very affectionate child. She tried to cuddle the man who came to mend the photocopier. I could have done without knowing that.

It was a small, warm happening in a cold, harsh world, and it ought not to be worth writing about. But it is, and everyone who reads this knows why. If you see a man cuddling a pretty little girl who you know isn't his daughter, do the same unspeakable thoughts cross your mind - and do you dare to ignore the little warning note you hear in your brain?

But perhaps, sometimes, you should. Perhaps the relentless warnings about men have gone too far. Are we in danger of bringing up a generation of children who will be permanently and neurotically afraid of men - and of forcing a generation of men to stifle a healthy affection for children? If we want men to take their proper part in bringing up children, should we be teaching our children to be afraid of them, and teaching men never to show affection to a child?

As I walked across the park again this morning, a small girl smiled at me. I think she was another of my daughter's friends, but I am not sure. Her mother was with her, and I stifled my instinct to smile back, lest it be misunderstood.

Sometimes, of course, we must err on the side of caution. Some friends of mine bought a video of Babar the Elephant for their three-year-old daughter. If they had known that it was the episode in which hunters kill Babar's mother, they would probably not have bought it.

It gave the child nightmares, and for several nights in a row she woke crying "Go 'way bad man".

The neighbours called in social services, and my friends had a few uncomfortable interviews. Yet once they got over the shock, they decided the neighbours had done the right thing.

But it makes frightened rabbits of us all. A few years ago, attending a conference at a seaside town, I walked along an almost deserted beach with a colleague. We came across a small boy in floods of tears because he was lost and late for his football match. "Come on Arthur," I said. "We can drive him there in 10 minutes." But Arthur, who was older than me and had seen more than his fair share of human nastiness, vetoed the plan instantly. And rightly.

We found a strange woman to take the boy instead. She sounded kindly enough, but then so do I. For all I know she was a serial murderer.

What should a man do? Should he avoid all contact with the young unless he has several independent witnesses? Should he walk around with a sign saying: "I am not a child molester"?

Would anyone believe him if he did? Or should we, maybe, ease up on the constant warnings that all men are potential dangers, that those you know are not safe either, that close male friends and relatives are not above suspicion.

By the way, Annie's not her real name. You can't be too careful with children.

Francis Beckett lives in Barnet, north London, and is a volunteer helper in his daughter's primary school.

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