CHILDREN / Would your child go with a stranger?: Danger can appear in many different guises and children need to know it when they see it, says Sandy Sulaiman

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'ONE OF the toughest moments of my life was when my seven-year-old son asked if he could walk round to our corner shop on his own. He doesn't know this, but I watched him all the way out of an upstairs window - in fact I still do. And I know I'm not the only parent who feels this way.'

Chris Jones, a 33-year-old local government officer with two children, lives with his family in a leafy street in west London. He had a London childhood himself, but believes that he enjoyed more freedom as a boy than his own children ever will. 'You'd think London would have been a dangerous place even 20 years ago. But I used to play out on the streets all the time and go for long bike rides with my cousin. I would never let my son do that now.'

Chris can only recall one incident when he may have been in danger as a child. 'When I was about my son's age I was approached by a priest with a camera, who told me I was a handsome little boy and asked if he could take my picture. Luckily I was outside my home, so I rushed inside.'

Kate Harper also lives in a quiet London suburb. Her 11-year-old son Justin starts secondary school in the autumn, and Kate's main worry is that he will be travelling to school alone on public transport for the first time in his life. 'I've always taken him to school in the car. We live a couple of miles away so it's a good excuse for me to drop him at the gates and make sure he goes in safely.'

Kate, who is 35 years old, was born and brought up in a seaside town in Northumbria. She too says she can't help comparing her own childhood with her son's. 'At the age of seven,' she recalls, 'I was travelling to school on public transport and running errands to the local corner shop. I remember being given the usual warnings about strangers, but I was still very independent.'

Kate, along with many other parents at her son's primary school, is terrified that her child will be the victim of an abduction. 'It's something you read about all the time in the papers. Parents can't help but be affected.

'But I think I may have taken away any initiative Justin might have. He's very nave and trusting. I feel as if he's much more vulnerable than I ever was as a child, and this makes me even more reluctant to let him loose on the outside world. You feel your children are very much at risk.'

Chris Jones and Kate Harper share the anxieties of many parents who are becoming increasingly worried about their children's safety - whether they are young children or teenagers. And with some justification - child abductions have increased in Britain by 40 per cent in the last five years. Natural anxiety is further fuelled by continual reports in the press of children being sexually abused, abducted and murdered.

But are children really at greater risk now than they were 20 or 30 years ago? Michele Elliott is a psychologist, teacher and mother of two, and director of Kidscape, the campaign for children's safety, which was founded in 1984. She stresses that while it is important for parents to be aware of the dangers, they should also keep things in perspective. Although child abductions have increased greatly in percentage terms, the numbers involved are still small: there are more than 12 million children in the UK, and only 196 were abducted last year.

Nevertheless, those 196 children and their parents have endured a terrible ordeal, which no family wants to go through. Michele Elliott believes that the world today genuinely is a more dangerous place for children than it used to be. She puts this down to a combination of factors, but particularly to increased mobility and the breakdown of local communities. People move home more and often don't know their neighbours: it is easy for an ill-meaning adult to drive to a place where he is not known, abduct (or cause some other kind of harm to) a child and drive off.

Kidscape says that the key to keeping children safe is to communicate with them. Generations of parents have been warning their children to steer clear of the mythical 'stranger', and this has been reinforced by government campaigns on child safety. Yet according to a survey carried out by Kidscape into the effects of the recent 'Red Riding Hood' campaign, the message has been received but has gone somewhat astray.

When Kidscape interviewed 500 children aged between five and eight, they discovered that nine out of ten knew they should never go with a stranger. But when it came to defining what a stranger actually looks like or does, there was much confusion.

Most of the children questioned had an image of a sinister looking man with dark glasses and a beard. Six out of ten said a woman could not be a stranger and eight out of ten said the interviewee (whom they had never seen before) was not a stranger because 'she didn't look like one'. Six out of ten also thought it was wrong to kick or fight off a grown-up, especially a woman, even if it was someone who was trying to hurt them.

Michele Elliott points out how dangerous this kind of thinking can be for a child. 'What if a well-dressed woman offers them a lift? Our children are brought up to be obedient - to do what they are told by adults. But in order to stay safe they have to be taught that it's OK to break the rules.' Running away, screaming, kicking, lying and other forms of normally unacceptable behaviour are all fine in times of danger. Statistically, though, children are more at risk of abuse from someone they know.

'You cannot be too protective of a child under the age of seven,' Michele Elliott says. 'But they do have to go out in the world one day and it's very bad for their confidence and self-development if parents try to put them in cages.'

Carolyn Douglas, director of Exploring Parenthood, an advice and counselling organisation, agrees that children should not be overprotected - but, unlike Michele Elliott, believes society today is not any more dangerous now than it was when she was a child.

'Children were being raped and abused 20 and 30 years ago. People haven't got nastier - it's just that parents are more aware of nasty things.' She believes that this is partly the fault of the media who have raised parental awareness to the point where it is almost counter-productive. 'They are always trying to tell parents what dangers to be aware of,' she points out. 'These range from child abuse and teenage pregnancies to Aids and drug or alcohol abuse. Parents just end up confused.

'So many parents have started to shepherd their children everywhere in cars. It may be a great time-saver but it also increases the sense of isolation that families feel.' She sympathises with parents who want to wrap their children in cotton wool, but warns against it. 'Otherwise you'll end up with an 18-year-old who wants to hitchhike round the world before he's even learnt to use a local bus.'

Children need their independence because without it they don't pick up a street awareness, Carolyn Douglas concludes. 'Without this they are more vulnerable. It's a parent's responsibility to teach them how to be safe.'

Kidscape (071-730 3300); Exploring Parenthood (081-960 1678)


Kidscape's guidelines on safety recommend that children need to know how:

TO BE SAFE Tell children that everyone has rights, and that no one should take away their right to be safe.

TO PROTECT THEIR BODIES Their bodies belong to them, particularly the private parts covered by their swimsuits.

TO SAY NO It's all right to say no to anyone, if that person is trying to harm them.

TO TELL Assure children that no matter what happens, you will not be angry with them - and that you want them to tell you about any incident.

TO BE BELIEVED If they go to an adult for help, they need to know that they will be believed and supported.

NOT TO KEEP SECRETS Teach children that some kinds of secrets should never be kept: child molesters will often say that a touch or kiss is 'our secret'.

TO REFUSE TOUCHES They should not be forced to hug or kiss anyone if they do not want to.

NOT TO TALK TO STRANGERS As most well-meaning adults or teenagers do not approach children who are alone, unless they are lost or in distress, teach children to ignore any such approach: they should pretend not to hear and quickly walk or run away.

TO BREAK RULES Sometimes it is all right to break rules in order to protect themselves and stay safe: to run away, for example, or to yell and make a fuss - even to lie and kick to get away from danger.