Let’s get one thing straight. The threat from strangers is vanishingly small and has been for years – no matter what you might think from the tabloid headlines and distorted television coverage. What is more, the vast majority of child murders are committed by their parents, not by strangers. However low the risk, it is tempting to think that we – and children – have to be prepared for the worst: that we have no choice but to frighten them, in order to protect them. Tempting, but disastrously wrong. For it ignores the corrosive impact of the fear of strangers.
The message ‘don’t trust strangers’ takes us to a place where nobody trusts anyone. Where the slightest pleasantry with a child is grounds for suspicion, where basic human concern is rebranded as a naïve and foolish emotion, and where people are anxious even to come to the aid of a child in obvious distress.
In one unbearably tragic case from a few years ago – discussed in my book No Fear – a toddler had strolled unnoticed out of the gates of a playgroup. A man saw the child, but did nothing because he was afraid of being accused of abducting her. She was later found drowned in a nearby pond. One playworker told me of a more mundane but equally troubling episode, when he came across a child he knew in an unfamiliar part of town, lost and desperate. Even though there were people around, he was terrified to ask anyone he didn’t know for help.
So where does all this leave parents, teachers and childcare professionals? Surely our starting point is to be unceasingly honest with children about the real level of threat. This means being clear that most adults, most of the time, are not a danger, and indeed will help if they can.
I am not saying we should pretend that horrific crimes never happen. I am not saying we should shield children from them on the mercifully rare occasions when they do. I am not saying that we should not help children to keep themselves safe – though I do think our support should focus on helping children to be more socially confident and assertive as they grow up, and be less reliant on simplistic safety rules. What I am saying is that we need to think much more about the messages we give children. And telling them that the world is full of grown-ups who want to hurt them is not only untrue, it also undermines the very fabric of trust and solidarity that in practice makes communities more safe.
A version of this article was published in June 2006 in Nursery World magazine.