Leading Article: Children imprisoned by an ancient fear

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The Independent Online
AN ANXIETY that children will be abducted by strangers is deep- rooted. In more settled times, travelling people were the object of that fear. There is, for example, the old rhyme:

My mother said that I never should

Play with the gypsies in the wood;

If I did, she would say,

Naughty girl to disobey.

A fear of strangers as child-killers was expressed in the Middle Ages by anti- Semitic propaganda. The deaths of St William of Norwich (murdered in 1144, aged 12) and St Hugh of Lincoln (murdered in 1255, aged 9) were both wrongly blamed on Jews, the outsiders and scapegoats of those times. The images of such deaths survived in screen paintings and in The Canterbury Tales.

Our ancestors would express little surprise at the finding of a survey published yesterday that nearly all parents fear the abduction of their children above any other danger. They would have held similar views. However, just as we do today, our ancestors would probably have overstated the relative risks to children. No doubt greater danger lay in children's proximity to large animals such as horses and cattle, or injury by farm implements.

Similarly today, a child under 15 is about 30 times as likely to be killed by a car than it is to be murdered by a stranger. About eight children under 15 are killed by strangers each year. They are much more likely to fall victim to people they know: only one out of four sexual assaults on children aged between 5 and 15 is by a stranger.

It may seem academic to argue about the scale of the problem as long as any children are being abused or murdered. The killing of eight-year-old Sean Williams this week in north London cautions against complacency. However, disproportionate fears can easily lead parents to construct an overprotective environment for children, cramping their lives by trapping them indoors, where they must spend all their time with adults.

Yesterday's report by Kidscape, the children's charity, strikes a sensible balance. Instead of wrapping children in cotton wool against a relatively remote danger, it recommends that parents help to equip young people to cope with such emergencies.

It offers sensible advice, such as playing 'what if' games so that a child knows what to do if lost or approached by a stranger. 'Children should be taught that it is all right to kick and shout and make a big fuss if they feel threatened by someone. Parents should practise shouting 'No' with their children,' states the report. Children could be taught that telephone operators can trace their home with just a postcode and a surname. Passers-by, the report says,should be less reluctant to intervene if they see a child struggling with an adult.

Child abduction is becoming a profound worry for parents as reports of real instances build on mythical fears. But child rapists and killers are not lurking on every corner. Teaching children to be assertive in the world they encounter seems a balanced, proportionate response, better than fearful confinement.