How stranger danger really threatens lives

The terrible murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman are every loving parents' worst nightmare. When child death was a devastating but common experience little more than 100 years ago, parents had no choice but to accept that a child's welfare was often out of their control. Now we know better. With greater knowledge about the nature of infection, the carcinogenic properties of sunshine and the need for stair gates and car seats, we have greatly reduced the risks. Consequently all of those other uncontrollable risks such as paedophilia, child murder and meningitis seem to loom larger in the public imagination.

Children grow up now in fearful and overprotective times. They are rarely allowed to play unsupervised in the streets. They are driven to school because parents fear them being knocked down if they walk. Parents are queuing up to buy tracker devices and would even consider implanting a chip into their child's arm. A scientist at Reading University announced last week that such a brave new world was close. We are close to hysteria about child abuse. Every stranger is a suspect rather than a benign influence and only the family is to be trusted, even though this is often where children are most vulnerable to neglect, abuse and death.

The statistics do not back up these new fears. Child murder is extremely rare and no more likely now than it ever was. Paedophiles have always existed, but traditionally they play upon the vulnerable - those in care or in foster homes and the hundreds of under-18s who run away from abuse, conflict and misery at home every week. Two hundred and twenty under-18s go missing each day. Approximately 70 per cent return home, but what about the rest? We never hear their stories in the press, yet the unique abduction and murder of two pretty 10-year-old girls from loving families was seized upon by the media, inflating an unprecedented tragedy into national paranoia. The grisly fact that those accused worked in local schools hammered another nail into the coffin of trust in our education staff.

We are in grave danger of damaging children more in the long-term through this pernicious suspicion and fear, for children inhabit a dangerous, risky world and many of the essential skills for navigating that world are absorbed during childhood. The child who has never been allowed to climb a high wall, or experience the thrill of doing something dangerous in a playground, has never been allowed to experience the fear and anxiety associated with risk or the sense of triumph that comes from success. The child who is driven everywhere will not learn how to cross a road. The child who is never allowed to ride their bike round the block or given money to buy something from the local corner shop is denied the opportunity to explore and learn how it feels to be away from parental scrutiny for a short while. The child who is consistently told never to talk to strangers risks growing up in an isolated world where all fellow human beings are potentially evil rather than good.

Growing up is a slow continuum that begins in childhood rather than adolescence. When younger children haven't been allowed to experience low risk and short periods of freedom away from home, research evidence suggests that they are less able to differentiate between low and high risk as teenagers when the stakes increase with exposure to drugs and alcohol and longer periods away from home. Risk is crucial to life - we risk failure or humiliation with every audition or job interview. Without an understanding of risk, there is no possibility of achievement, no sense of the need to strive for things and no sense of how to cope when they fail. We may ease our own anxieties about the possibilities of abduction by keeping our children under constant surveillance, but our duty as parents and guardians is to raise the young so that they are able to function and stay safe in the world they are destined to inhabit. The risk of abduction or murder by a complete stranger is still so small that there is no need for a massive lock-up of the nation's youth. Age-old wisdoms of never accepting presents, sweets or agreeing to go somewhere with someone - even if they know that person - without talking to their parents first, are usually good enough.

"The Terrible Teens" by Kate Figes is published by Viking at pound;9.99

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