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Leading Article: Time to unfasten the seatbelts and set your children free

To be young, in 1997, is to be safer than at any previous time in recorded history. Safer, that is, in the sense of not being likely to die - is there any measure more absolute than that? Childhood is safer because of medical advances and improvements in public health. It is also safer because children have fewer fatal accidents, a third as many as when Ted Heath was Prime Minister.

It follows that a lot of parental fear and anxiety is mistaken. Among the reasons is the role played by the British newspaper press; media-instigated fear of crime seems to be exaggeratedly high here compared with other countries. Parents' perceptions matter hugely in the way children are brought up. Jackie Lang of the Girls' Schools Association made the case yesterday for stepping back. Parents, she argued, need to let children breathe a bit, make a few mistakes. She is right.

This is not to try and capture some prelapsarian idyll when, like Richmal Compton's William, we could wander out in the meadows, slosh around in ditches, stuff frogs in our trouser pockets. It is true that, a generation ago, children played on largely empty streets which are now busy with cars. But it is also a fact that opportunities for physical activity for children have expanded enormously, from urban playgrounds, to clubs in and out of school catering for all manner of specialist interests. Turning children out of doors to play is neither to subject them to the depredations of drug dealers nor to see them fall under the wheels of juggernauts.

We do not live in an urban jungle. Wicked predators do not wait outside every school or linger by every playground. Of course parents must be alert, but paedophilia is not epidemic. Child homicide of any kind, let alone the brutality of the attack on Kate Bushell, is very, very rare.

As for traffic accidents, United Kingdom children are three times less likely to die on the roads than 30 years ago, and the UK record makes it just about the safest country in the European Union for children. The most dangerous place for all children was, is and will always be, in their own homes; and the most likely sources of violence against them lie within the sacred family.

Mrs Lang did not of course recommend that parents let their offspring roam free from dawn to dusk. She made her point by reference to rainwear. Why, she asked, do so few of her charges possess raincoats? Because they are delivered and picked up by car. From door to door, they rarely feel the rain on their skin. Fair enough, Mrs Lang educates the middle classes, who can afford the car journeys. But her point nevertheless applies more generally. Up and down the social structure, parents are tempted into over-protectiveness. They impose on their children regimes which cosset and insulate them. Intending to minimise risk to their children, they may end up depriving them of the chance to learn for themselves, to make their own risk assessments. No amount of GCSE maths can teach children the calculus of probability that they will need to apply, sooner or later, in their own lives.

Youth is surrounded by temptation, often compounded by ignorance. The United Kingdom is relatively safe for children on the roads, but it is a dangerous place between the sheets, on the sofa, or in the neighbourhood park: we have one of the highest rates for conceptions by under-16 girls in the EU. That, and high rates of sexually transmitted disease, reflect in part the failure of parents and schools to supply basic information. It may also speak about a wider failure to apportion risk. The newspapers (to name a prime mover in moral panics) and other media propagate the idea that sex is risk-free, while harping on the dangers of walking the neighbours' dog. The world out there is dangerous but many of its pitfalls are emotional. We spend far too much time protecting children from life, and far too little preparing them for its traps and pitfalls.

The messages given to children are often so imbalanced that it is no wonder their scale of values is warped. Never take addictive drugs - unless they are sanctioned by advertising, the Prime Minister and parents. Never have unprotected sex - but when was the last time you saw or read about the messy business of condom-wearing? We could do better, as parents or would-be parents. And we could make a start, where Mrs Lang recommends, by lightening up.