The Stranger Danger myth

May 14, 2015

Since my child started year 3 he is in a different school building, meaning we now take a different route on our walk to school to enter the grounds at a different point. We walk up a cul-de-sac, at the end of which is a path with some green space on one side, and the school perimeter fence on the other. My child likes to say goodbye to me at the end of the cul-de-sac, then go the rest of the way, along the path, by himself.

As this is away from any roads, and my child is now a little older, this feels safe enough to me, and I allow it. However, early in the school year I used to follow at some distance behind until I could see into the playground, then watch over the fence until I saw him enter the school building. Eventually I stopped doing this, but still stood and watched until he entered the gate into the school grounds.

And yet I realise these ‘precautions’ were entirely for my own benefit, my own piece of mind. What could possibly happen to my child in the hundred or so yards between the end of the cul-de-sac and the school gate? Where did I think he could or would go, other than into school? It was just about me letting go. Watching him into the playground was entirely unnecessary. The chances of something happening, and I’m not even sure what, are so remote.

keep-calm-and-avoid-stranger-danger-3But the extent to which we allow our judgement to be clouded in this department is very much apparent. Despite solid evidence that children are in fact safer playing out now than they were thirty years ago, the number of children playing out has steadily declined to alarmingly low proportions. The National Trust report, “Natural Childhood” tells us,

“In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%.”

The increase in traffic plays its part, but the research points to parents’ perceptions of ‘stranger danger’ as the real culprit to blame for this phenomenon, and its accompanying growth in the concern for what this means for children’s happiness, development and well-being. The report goes on to say that,

“There can be no doubt that most parents’ greatest fear is stranger danger.”

and quoting Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods,

“Fear is the most potent force that prevents parents from allowing their children the freedom they themselves enjoyed when they were young.”

What kids are missing out on here is huge, and it’s not just about the outdoors, it’s opportunities for free-play, along with the opportunity to learn to manage some risk, and develop some independence, all essential to the developing child. Awareness of the immense value of free play is perhaps lacking as much as awareness of the real facts relating to stranger danger. Campaigns and organisations, besides the efforts of the National Trust, have sprung up, trying to tackle this issue, and yet still the majority of children continue to be denied the free-range childhoods that so many of us enjoyed ourselves.

So why do we ignore the facts? The National Trust report calls it “availability heuristic: a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or how many people it will affect within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. In other words, as a result of news coverage of attacks on children, it is easy for people to recall horrendous, tragic examples – Madeleine McCann, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and so on. And as a result of that, they significantly and systematically overestimate the likelihood of something happening to their own children.”

Of course, as with many aspects of parenting, we are also apt to take our lead from other parents around us. I often hear people say things like, “That’s how things are these days”. But why are things like that these days, when they don’t need to be? It’s as if the irrational and illogical thinking of those around us validates our own lack of true judgement.

But if no other kids are walking to school on their own or playing out on the street, we’re not very much inclined to let ours do these things. Not only does it influence our own judgement of what is and isn’t acceptable or ‘normal’, but we can’t rely on ‘safety in numbers’ when there are no numbers out there.

It seems there are no easy answers. It’s another case of needing to separate our own stuff from what is really best for our children, but when something becomes normalised in our society, changing attitudes is never easy.

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Is child’s play just for children?

October 26, 2012

Over the last few months I have become increasingly interested in the issue of the loss of freedom in childhood today;  the lack of free play children engage in due to the rise of screen technology, the trend towards over-scheduling children into organised classes and activities, the introduction of homework in primary schools, an increase in traffic, and an increased fear of ‘stranger danger’. By free play, I mean children playing imaginatively and creatively, without adult supervision and direction, with each other or independently, and without the use of screens. I have written more about this here and here.

My conclusion is that this type of play is of vital importance to children and needs to be promoted, facilitated, and preserved. This is something I’ve started to feel increasingly strongly about.

Also of vital importance, however, is spending time with our children. Yes, we need to give them space, but there’s a balance to be struck here. A recent study reports shocking numbers of children saying that they wished they could spend more time with their parents, and shocking numbers of parents admitting to spending shockingly little time giving their children their full attention, and somehow I suspect that this is not due to the children spending too much time engaged in free play.

There are many different ways to spend time with our children. We can engage in activities like baking or cooking together, reading, or playing board games. But whilst these things all have their value, they can be quite restrictive, controlled and adult led. A more free, child-led play, however, has a special quality. When we play with children we are joining them in their world, meeting them at their level, on their territory. The value and benefits of simply playing together cannot be over-estimated.

Get to know you

One of the many ways I feel play benefits my relationship with my child is that it enables me to learn more about him, especially now that he’s at school and spending more hours away from me, but even before a child begins school, there is a lot going on in their heads that may surprise us, and playing can give us some real insight.

Imaginative, make-believe, role-play based games can be really fascinating. If I let my child come up with the ideas and lead the way I can learn what has made an impression on him, what has been going on at school, and what he is needing to process and is trying to understand. Play is a great way for me to help him do this. Play can help him work through issues, things that might have upset him, that he’s struggling to come to terms with. We can re-enact things like going to the doctor, or getting hurt in the playground.

Get rough

Rough and tumble is important play particularly for boys who use this type of play to bond with each other and play out aggression. For parents who find this type of play worrying, what better solution than to practice with your child? We can help teach them some basic rules and to figure out their own strength, and when they need to hold back or stop. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D, author of the fantastic book, Playful Parenting, has also co-authored a whole book on this one topic, The Art of Roughhousing.  In it he writes;

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination.”

Get some therapy

Play can even be used to help children with particular problems they might be having, as play therapists around the world will attest. Maybe your child needs a little bit of extra nurture, reassurance of their value and your love. Maybe they need some help giving up a little control, or practice following instructions or taking turns.

For more on this, see my previous post on Theraplay.

The single most valuable aspect of playing with our children though is simply bonding and connecting. Staying connected with our children is essential for successful parenting, and playing with them is one of the best ways to achieve this. Putting the household chores and everything else aside and giving a child our undivided attention also tells them how special and important they are to us. Just half an hour a day can make a world of difference.  Sure, kids need space, they need free play without adults muscling in or hovering, and they need to be able to play independently too, but the value and benefit, indeed, in my opinion, the necessity of playing with our children should not be forgotten.