The news that a teenage girl was abducted and assaulted by men in Oxford has left me shocked by the fact it happened in broad daylight and local people worried sick about their own children’s safety.
Perfectly understandable. I can’t bear to think about my children (or anyone else’s) being harmed. But I don’t think we should react by stopping our children from going out alone.
I think it’s important to keep the risks in perspective at the same time as thinking about how to protect our families.
How common are child abductions by strangers?
Thankfully, these horrific events are rare and every day millions of children go to and from school or to the local shops and come to no harm. But these events are not news-worthy so we don’t hear about or think about them.
A study of police statistics by the charity Action Against Abduction tell us that in one year there were around 200 attempts and 50 cases where a stranger succeeded in taking a child.
That’s too many of course, but it’s a tiny risk compared to, for example, a child being a passenger in a car; twelve children under 10 are killed or injured as passengers in cars every day.
So can the fear factor in our minds trick us into seeing danger in the wrong places?
I think there is a real risk that children whose parents openly worry too much about stranger danger start to see every adult they don’t know as a threat.
In fact most adults would never harm a child, and if they are lost or hurt it’s far more important that children have the confidence to go up to someone in the street and ask for help.
The flip side of this societal fear is that other adults, especially men, are portrayed as risks to children by their parents.
I experienced this unfounded fear while walking down the street only this week.
A mother with three children aged roughly four to seven was walking towards me. I made eye contact with one of the children and smiled. A perfectly natural reaction whether you have your own children or not.
However, as they approached the mother shepherded the children away from me and gave me a hostile stare. And then, as they passed, but still within earshot, the boy I had smiled at said: “That man’s a stranger right mummy?” And the mum said: “That’s right honey, so you stay away from him now.”
Yes folks. I’m a suspected child snatcher. Look for wanted posters of me on lamp posts soon.
I was thinking, what the hell just happened? Part of me wanted to turn round and say to the mum that I was actually a local parent, but even if I didn’t have kids what she’d said was pretty hurtful to me and more importantly was sending a really bad signal to her children.
She could have said: “That’s right honey. But most people are good and you don’t need to be afraid of him.” And maybe smiled back at me instead of giving me the evils.
Come on people. Can we get a grip on this and not raise a generation of suspicious, terrified children who will grow up to be suspicious, over-anxious adults?
What steps can parents take to protect children out alone?
OK. So there are real risks out there in the world. But it’s our job as parents to equip our children to manage them and develop a positive, hopeful attitude to their environment.
So how can we encourage independence while doing our utmost to keep them safe? How can we give them a roll of emergency cotton wool to carry with them rather than wrap them up in it?
Obviously, really young children shouldn’t be travelling on their own but there is no minimum age at which the law says it’s safe for them to do so. It’s up to the parents or guardians to assess the risks and make a decision.
I started walking to school on my own aged nine and shortly after I remember a giddy trip into ‘town’ on the bus with friends to buy an LP from HMV. Now this was the 80s when lets face it, parents still waved their kids off in the morning on their BMX bikes and hoped they wouldn’t see them till they were hungry.
It also depends where you live. Letting your children out alone in London is different to a quiet village. You also need to think about the routes they take, how confident they are, how street smart and who they are with. I recall friends that my parents trusted without question and others they wouldn’t leave alone in our front room lest the TV got smashed.
The NSPCC has produced a very good guide to letting your children out alone that you can download for free.
Without reproducing that advice I think my advice to my children will be five simple rules:
- Agree where they are going, who they’re with and when they’ll be back.
- Keep your phone (or whatever we’re using in 2025) on and send me a message every hour to let us know you’re fine.
- If you get into any problems and can’t contact us find a police officer, or go into a public building or a shop and ask for help.
- Do a test run. Do the journey with them but let them lead and only intervene if they get stuck or lost.When they can take you safely there and back they can have a go on their own.
- Never get into anyone’s vehicle even if they do seem trustworthy.*
I’ll keep reviewing this as I’ve got a few years before my boys are walking the streets alone. I think the penalty for breaking the first rule would be grounding and then back to having to travel with you. Sooo embarrassing, I think they’d soon get with the plan.
Don’t think I’m naive. I’ve been around the block a few times before becoming a dad and I know that the first time they go out alone I will be terrified. And probably annoy them by constantly messaging to check they are OK.
It’s what we do; as parents there is no stronger instinct than to protect our children. We all know we’d risk our own lives for them.
But despite the horrible news and the devastating crimes that befall some families I will choose to continue to believe that most of society is good and decent.
And as they get older I’ll tell my boys that most strangers are not out to get them. They will need to be careful and use the knowledge we’ve given them mixed with a dose of their own good sense.
*I know this sounds like I don’t believe my own point about most people not being bad – but this is non-negotiable. Even I wouldn’t do this.
Categories: Big Issues