Are our children safe?

SWALLOWS And Amazons, the first and best-known of Arthur Ransome's great children's stories, begins with the arrival of a telegram.It is the answer to a plea by four children for permission to go on a sailing adventure of their own - without adult supervision.

SWALLOWS And Amazons, the first and best-known of Arthur Ransome's great children's stories, begins with the arrival of a telegram.

It is the answer to a plea by four children for permission to go on a sailing adventure of their own - without adult supervision. The youngest, Roger, is just seven.

Daddy's answer, sent from his ship in Malta, is a classic of telegram succinctness. It's a classic of literature too. And in its neat, snappy way it sums up an attitude to children and childhood that sadly seems now to belong to another world.

It reads: “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won't drown.”

Even in 1930, when the book was published, the word “duffers” probably pinned it down to a certain class. That class, in fact, where children might have boats to sail.

Of course, this is an adventure story, not a slice of real life. And the very fact of the telegram demonstrates that permission was not a foregone conclusion and had to be sought.

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Nevertheless, underpinning it is the solid notion that children need to have fun.

They need physical activity.

And they need to test their own boundaries, including facing a degree of risk.

All these are truths that we seem to have lost touch with.

I was never a particularly brave, adventurous or physically confident child. All the same, long before I was out of primary school I would spend weekends and summer evenings yomping with a small posse of young friends through the fields, woods and farms surrounding my village.

Once a group of us, none older than 11, pushed a large fallen tree across a stream to make a bridge, which we then all crossed and re-crossed. On another occasion we helped a fox evade a hunt - or at least imagined we had.

Our games might easily take us a mile or two from any of our homes, and this of course was long before the days of mobile phones. I don't recall any serious injuries or alarms. The worst harm that befell me was a broken finger, suffered while playing football.

Television was an occasional distraction, not a constant obsession. Computers were not yet personal, and certainly in no one's home.

It wouldn't have occurred to anyone that I should be taken to school beyond the first day. Anyone older than five whose mother waited for them at the school gate would have been teased terribly.

This is the 1960s I'm talking about, not the 1930s, but it's just as much a vanished world.

There seems to be a general paranoia now that our children are under threat every moment they're out of our sight. It's irrational and unfair, and I'm afraid I share it.

I also try to fight the urge to over-protect, and I'm not alone in that. The runaway success of Conn and Hal Iggulden's Dangerous Book For Boys shows that nostalgia for the days of childhood yomping is common.

Whether every parent who buys the book would let their sons (or daughters) do everything described in it is another matter. So why do we tie our children to our apron-strings so much tighter and for so much longer than our parents did us?

Is it because the world is more dangerous? Or do we just think it is?

What is it, in fact, that we are afraid of?

That our child might fall from a tree and break a leg? That was always a risk - the kind of risk it does you good to face when young.

No, the prevailing, dominant fear seems to be of perverts, murderers and those demonised “paedophiles”.

Happily, there are very few such people in the real world, and most of them are sad but harmless.

Two researchers at Bournemouth University have been assessing the true level of risk from child murderers. And they found some interesting things.

The first is that the vast majority of murdered children - 85 per cent - are killed by a family member, most often their mother.

From 1998 to 2002, there were 16 children in the UK killed, or probably killed, by strangers. That's 16 too many, but still a tiny, insignificant, proportion of all the millions of children out there.

The true risk of a child being murdered is no higher now than it has ever been.

And it is no higher when they're out and about than it is at home.

Professor Colin Pritchard condemns the climate of fear and concludes: “We are in danger of robbing our children of their childhood because we keep them too close.”

He also, however, highlights the real danger faced by today's youngsters. An average of 150 children aged 14 or under are killed each year by motorists. I wonder how many of those drivers are on the school run - for safety's sake, of course.

In statistical terms, that 150 is still not a huge number. Interestingly, it's considerably fewer than in 1930, which was the worst year ever for road deaths.

The fact is our children would grow up and learn better if we could learn to trust them more.

And they'd be safer if they all walked to and from school.


Do you think children are safe to play outside in today's world? Are parents over protective? Write to Your Letters, the Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail