I often feel as if we are living in precarious times. One look at the news and it’s hard not to believe that we are simply fortunate to be above ground. From the moment we wake we are hit with an endless stream of distressing images, from man’s assault on nature, to war torn conflicts to home grown terror such as the recent Manchester bombings and the horrendous attacks on London Bridge and Borough market. It often seems as though there are pedophiles on every street corner and behind every computer or a terrorist behind every wheel. And if all these horrors don’t get our children we are sure a feral heroin addicted NEET will finish the job. And what do we do in the face of all this adversity? We wrap our kids in Kevlar and get online to read about conspiracies and secret cabals as we try and impose order on such senselessness. It is a wonder as parents we let our children out of the house at all.
Now, I don’t want to diminish these things, but perhaps a little perspective can help us all a wee bit. So, I’m here to tell you what you already know. Children can still stay out late, they can still climb trees and they can disappear from view for a few hours without any major catastrophe. By any yardstick, kids are safer today than they were when I was child ( which was a while ago…but not too much of a while…okay, it was a while ago).Take road accidents, for example. According to the Department of transport there has been a 75 percent reduction in the number of children killed on the roads in England and Wales, either in cars or as pedestrians, in the last thirty years. The reason for this is relatively simple. Improvements in car safety features and road design. This type of improved safety spans across many aspects of our lives.
Admittedly, road safety is one of the tamer fears many of us have. So let’s get to the real monsters. What of the child killers, the stuff of every parent’s nightmares? Deaths like those of Baby P, Tia sharp and 10 -year-old friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham are forever etched in our minds. Well, the good news is ( if one can phrase it like that) that statistically your child isn’t any more or less at risk than he or she would have been 30 years ago. Perhaps that doesn’t sound good, but the point is the world has always been capable of such horror, but thankfully these are mercifully rare. The number of child murders has stayed the same. On average, 79 have taken place each year in England and Wales since the 70s. Of these, just 11 are committed by a stranger. And while abductions make the front pages, only five to seven actually occur a year. And yet as a nation we worry more.
This is borne out by studies that reveal that in 1971, approximately eight out of 10 eight-year-olds were allowed to walk to school on their own. Now, it is fewer than one in 10. This trend is set to decline further.
Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, says:
“I’ve been examining this culture of fear for seven years and every year the situation gets worse. Things that weren’t a problem three years ago are today.
“Before, it was argued that it was unsafe for kids to play outdoors on their own. Then they were unsafe playing indoors, so kids were encouraged to sit at a computer. Now there is the risk of pedophiles lurking in chatrooms.
“Whatever kids do, there’s a health warning. I passed a park play area recently and for every child on the swings or monkey bars, there were about two adults watching to make sure they didn’t get hurt.
“There was no chance for the kids to play around and have an adventure because they were under constant surveillance.
“We no longer think of them as being robust – we now see them as vulnerable and at risk. We think there must be constant adult supervision. But youngsters also need to be taught to be self-sufficient.”
So why are parents worried ?
The average age of child bearing has gone up significantly and this is often paired with fewer offspring.This has a compound effect on those involved and makes the process of having a child at a late age much more emotionally fraught. This can result in slightly obsessive behaviour surrounding safety.
One must also consider that we live in a media saturated age. There is advice for everything and anything everywhere. We don’t just get on with it anymore. In the age of social media, in which we stand over each other like witless judges, there is a constant weighing up of ourselves against one another and a nagging inner voice that tells us we might be getting it wrong. As a result we doubt ourselves, defaulting to a state of hypersensitivity and over vigilance. The irony of all this excessive attention is that it is actually having a damaging effect on our children.
Im sure many of us can remember having the Green Cross Code drummed into us at primary school by some furry mascot or other, but there are many children beginning secondary school having never walked to school on their own. And this is not insignificant. Road awareness is taught through practice, just as any other skill is and the experience of a pedestrian is vastly different to that of a passenger in a vehicle. Indeed the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) is so concerned about the phenomenon that they are rolling out a scheme,Learning About Safety Through Experiencing Risk (LASER), whereby 10-year-olds encounter various scenarios aimed at boosting road skills.
We have to foster independence. Without this how can we hope our kids will be streetwise enough to avoid dangers out there. Of course we must approach this with some common sense. Throwing them out the car on a family trip with a packet of matches and a roll of loo paper is probably not the best idea, but there are little things we can do. Allowing them to walk to school or at least part of the way ( you can always follow behind) is a small thing, but it can be an incredibly empowering for a child. Life as an adult is full of minor crises, but so is a child’s. We must give them the tools to deal with them. Parents must work out where their boundaries lie, but it’s important to set your child free.
I seemed to have digressed a little. I was talking about the state of the world today. I suppose the point is, the world seems terrible and maybe as a species we do a lot of awful things, but the truth is we’re no worse than we were. As social media gleefully gives us the crowning head of every disaster, we see a lot more of the bad and a little more of the good. We have more opportunity to feel worse about the world, but we are no less safe for it. Don’t worry, the kids will be alright.