It’s tough work being a parent. I have often likened it to any other career path. When you begin, it’s just a lot of long hours and dull repetitive manual labour. Like being a waitress but without the tips. As time goes by, you move higher up the corporate structure until you have a more managerial, strategic role. Then the sleep is better but you have difficult decisions to make about the things you want your child to learn and value. Are you building an Innocent Smoothie, John Lewis or Goldman Sachs?
But whatever the company ethos, essentially, the overriding goal is that they be happy and safe.
You think that should be the easy part – but this week it seems, keeping children safe has become a terrifying prospect. Megan Stammers, Jimmy Savile, the appalling treatment of victims in the Rochdale case, and now the worrying search for April Jones all go to prove that there are dangers everywhere.
We teach our children about peril and fear through fairy tales. Wicked witches, evil goblins, ogres are all easy to spot. The infamous child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was obviously up to no good, even in that colourful cloak with the lollipops. We tell our children, and more importantly we tell ourselves, that we will know danger when it comes. We think we can teach our children who to trust but, what these cases prove, is that as parents, we don’t really have a clue either.
Megan’s parents trusted their daughter’s teacher to teach her, not whisk her off to France without a word. The girls in the Rochdale case trusted that police and social services would ultimately protect their children, not criticise their lifestyle choices. And every parent in the land, it would seem, thought that the BBC would never give a prime time family platform to someone who actually wanted to hurt children. After all, he was paid to make their dreams come true – except he didn’t.
I have been involved with a large number of programmes about criminals, and have often wondered how it has affected my perception of danger. I know that child abductions by strangers are incredibly rare. Their names and faces are etched onto our memories precisely because they hardly ever happen. They are extraordinary.
I know enough to know that children are most in danger from people that they know and trust, whether it’s family members, neighbours or Light Entertainment national treasures.
The case of April Jones is described as every parent’s worst fear; their child can be snatched in an instant. But it is the kind of fear that we learn in fairy tales. The easily identifiable, straightforward ‘stranger danger’.
And then it is announced that she got into a car willingly, that it was probably someone that she knew, that her parents knew. I can’t begin to imagine what her parents are going through or the physical pain they must be feeling. How painful it must be to know that they too probably know the person who took her, and didn’t notice the menace. Hopefully, she will be found safe and well.
So where, as parents, are we left? How do we teach our children to be confident, and not frightened? To be safe but not stifled? And most importantly, to be invulnerable without being hard.
I think a lot about these things. I think I give my children a lot of personal freedom. I let my son go into public toilets by himself, while I wait outside or at the checkout. I let both children play in busy parks whilst they are not always in my sight. If I lived on a quiet street, I would probably let them play out. They are little and seem easy to protect but it will undoubtedly get harder.
The ‘stranger danger’ lessons we were taught at school seem woefully inadequate. 99.9% of the time, strangers are OK, pleasant even and sometimes we might need to go to them for help. It doesn’t account for situations which might make them nervous or uncomfortable. And it doesn’t get around the fact that sometimes we tell them to trust the wrong people. We don’t always know best.
My strategy, for what it’s worth, so far, seems to be one of honesty and conversation. The school does a runs a fantastic ‘keeping safe’ programme which we discuss a lot at home. House rules are as follows:
- I will always tell them who is picking them up and, even in an emergency, would never send someone who hadn’t picked them up before.
- If they are lost, they must find someone who works wherever we are and ask them for help, even though they are a stranger. If we are in a place where there are no staff, they must find a Mummy with a pushchair.
- There is nothing, ever, that they cannot tell me or their Dad – there are no secrets that must be kept, only surprises such as presents and parties. There are no worries that they might have that I wouldn’t listen to.
And that’s the best I can do. As hard as I try, I can’t keep them any safer than that. I refuse to believe that there is danger in every cubicle. I refuse to teach them that the world is a terrible place and that no one can be trusted.
Maybe it’s up to me to do the worrying for them.
Maybe that’s the point; they are incredibly lucky. The real children in danger are those who don’t have that. The vulnerable, those in care, those with no one to listen. The real crime in both the Rochdale and the Savile cases are the people who knew, but chose to look away, or blame the children. The people who still maintain that they should just forget about what happened to them. The people who kept their own children safe whilst ignoring what was happening to the others.
We are all so busy desperately searching for the fairy tale villain in the bushes that we don’t see the very real life situations they negotiate every day.
Heaven knows what I will do when they are older and can go out alone, use the internet alone or WANT to keep secrets from me. I can only hope that we have taught them well enough, and to have taught ourselves well enough to notice when things are wrong (and read their emails).
Other than that, it all seems such a leap of faith – to close your eyes, cross your fingers and hope it all turns out all right.