Strangers to the truth

Cars are a bigger danger to children than predatory adults, says Simon Webb

The greatest fear of children aged between 7 and 14 is the possibility of being kidnapped and murdered by a stranger, according to a Child Accident Prevention Trust survey. This far exceeds their fear of more realistic dangers, such as accidental injury or illness.

We shouldn't be surprised by this: many primary school children are never allowed out, even to walk to school, unless escorted by an adult. The reason is simple: parents are afraid their children might fall prey to a paedophile killer.

But the number of children in this country murdered by strangers is tiny - 13 under-14s last year, not many more than are killed each year by lightning. And it's a figure that has remained stable for decades. Why then are parents and children so much more concerned about death at the hands of a stranger than they are about, say, death in a road accident which is, for the average child, 25 times more likely?

The answer lies in the concept of "stranger danger", the officially sanctioned crusade that for years has attempted to persuade children and their parents that the greatest threat to their safety and wellbeing is posed by unfamiliar adults. The result is a generation of children who are seldom left alone, except in front of a TV set or computer.

Some experts are concerned about the harm this smothering protection is doing to children's developing social skills. I would go further and argue that the myth of stranger danger is putting lives at risk.

In 2000-2001, 13 children under the age of 14 were killed by a stranger (compared with 78 by a family member or someone known to them) and 22 children aged 14 to 18 were killed by a stranger (compared with 30). In the same year, 546 children were abducted, most by family members or someone known to them. But 218 children under 16 died in road accidents and more than 38,000 were injured.

The crusade promotes a false sense of security. If young children accept that stranger equals danger, then they may assume that a familiar adult equals safety - a potentially deadly error. Most child murders are committed by someone known to the child, not a sinister stranger with a bag of sweeties. Most children will answer sensibly when asked about hypothetical situations such as a stranger offering them sweets or a lift in a car. Ask them how they would react to a neighbour inviting them into their house to watch a video and they falter and become unsure of the correct response. Why? Because these people are not "strangers".

Our flawed perception of risk has produced a siege mentality which not only denies our children a normal childhood but blinds them to the real hazards in their lives.

Simon Webb is a former teacher who now works with children with special needs in a London charity

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