"In an anxious age, anxiety about some of the most vulnerable members of our society, children, is understandable. Adults need to show them how 'getting a grip' is done."

SIRC – Media Watch 31-07-99

A Stranger Danger

A campaign launched by the NSPCC this week under the working title of "NSPCC warns of the risks to children this summer" seems to have spurred an unprecedented charge of scare mongering from much of the country's media. The society's ten-point plan advising almost obsessive parental vigilance has been charged with fuelling an exaggerated fear of harm. The Sunday Times even went as far as naming the NSPCC as this week's 'Enemy of the People'. In his statement Jim Harding, NSPCC chief executive, insisted that their intentions were "to alert children to the possible dangers they may face outdoors this summer, without causing fear or panic." When you view the NSPCC's guidelines below, however, it is not hard to see why they have been criticised for doing just that. Tiffany Jenkins, a founder member of the Families for Freedom group, said: "It is outrageous. They are deliberately scaremongering parents with these fairy-tale fears when their fears are already way too high."

NSPCC advice for safety

Children under about eight years old should not be out alone. Even when playing with other children they need to be kept in the care and sight of an adult or a much older child who is mature and trustworthy.

As soon as children are able to understand, they should be taught their full name, address and telephone number. It should be repeated with them until they remember it.

Children should be taught to feel confident to refuse to do anything they feel is wrong or frightens them. At home they should never be made to kiss or hug an adult if they do not want to.

Young children should never be left in unsupervised play areas in shops or parks. Do not leave them alone in a car or outside a shop, even for just a few minutes.

Simple rules about personal safety can be taught from as young as two or three years old. Children should be told clearly they must never go off with anyone, not even someone they know, without first asking the adult who is looking after them.

When a child is old enough to go out alone he or she should be taught the three Ws so they can tell their parents who they are going out with, where they are going and when they will return home.

Teach children that when they are in danger or someone is hurting or threatening them they should take any action that will protect them. This includes running away, screaming, shouting, kicking, punching or lying. Their safety is all that matters.

Only babysitters aged over 16 and responsible enough to look after children should be used. Never employ a stranger to look after children at face value. Make sure that they have experience of children and good references. Double-check these by speaking to previous employers.

If you see anything that leads you to believe that a child may be in immediate danger, act straightaway and call the police.

Let children know you will always take them seriously and do whatever you can to keep them safe. Listen to children, especially when they are trying to tell you about things that worry them.

The NSPCC's recommendations focus on the dangers posed to children by contact with strangers even though only about six or seven children are killed a year by people that they don't know a ratio of less than one in a million. A recent poll conducted by NOP highlights the difference between the actual and perceived risks. Nearly eighty percent of parents cited a fear of strangers as the main reason for preventing their children from playing outside. As LM comments: "In an anxious age, anxiety about some of the most vulnerable members of our society, children, is understandable. But that doesn't stop it being a problem. Precisely because they are vulnerable and naive, children need adults to sort fact from fiction and to make rational decisions on their behalf. Children can be forgiven fears about bogeymen and invisible threats hiding in the shadows. Adults need to show them how 'getting a grip' is done."

Neatly tying in with the beginning of the summer holidays, when children across the country yearn to enjoy their six weeks of freedom out in the sunshine, parents are now being told effectively keep their darlings under house arrest. June McKerrow from the Mental Health Foundation expressed reservations about the detrimental effect this enforced captivity may have on children's development: "There are risks to children in insulating them and not letting them develop their own coping mechanisms, or do things their own way.that is part of growing up." Further objections were registered to the NSPCC's press release on moral grounds. A comment piece in the Daily Telegraph questioned the validity of paternalist dogma that attempted to dictate to us the definitive child rearing system. A system for which we should be grateful and by which we all should abide. "What children need is .to be loved and cared for unconditionally by adults who know that their task is too urgent and too intimate to be codified by the state."

So we can't let our children out to play in the street. No problem, they can play in the garden. Unfortunately not. Anyway, it's no longer a garden: it has been redefined by Consumer Affairs minister Kim Howells as a "safety action zone". If you were allowed to, and you're not, you could put your toddler in front of the TV to witness Felicity Kendal telling you to "keep your little soldiers safe in the garden". Loud music, according to the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, is also out. Call me nostalgic, but I am sure that when I was a kid life was much more fun.