By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter
Children are patrolled and monitored as never before
A smoked-glass 4x4 - one of those armoured personnel carriers of the suburbs - pulls up beside the pavement.
The car door swings open and a young passenger scurries out, holding some kind of document, rushing to push a doorbell before disappearing inside. The driver texts back to say the drop-off is complete.
Yes, it's an eight-year-old being taken to her piano lesson.
We live in strange times for parents. Even though we know rationally that there isn't a child snatcher hiding behind every recycling bin, we behave as if threats are all around us, waiting for us to drop our guard.
Walking to school alone? Playing in the streets? Crossing the city unaccompanied? Are you crazy? Don't you know the dangers out there?
Free to roam
A report from the Children's Society warns that parents' fears about safety are stopping children from playing outdoors unsupervised.
"You're not riding that bike outside."
And it shows how today's parents are not giving their children the freedom to roam that they enjoyed in their own childhoods in the 1970s.
Why are we such paranoid parents? Why do I worry at the idea of my uber-competent 10-year-old daughter walking on her own to school - when I was making my own way to school at a younger age?
Maybe it's because we live in a society that is drip-fed insecurity.
From the first car alarm of the morning, to the last police siren at night, we know much too much about the threats around us.
Terrorism, ill-health, bad food, debt, global warming, moody loners with handguns are all out there waiting for us. Terrible stories, played through 24-hours news, seem more like the norm than the exception.
Text messages are a parental tracking system
Jobs aren't safe, relationships aren't safe, our fashion sense is on an at-risk register.
And because we care most about our children, we worry most about them.
This spills over into the rest of their young lives. When you watch a school party being taken on a taken a trip, it's like a high-security prison operation, with children wearing bar-coded tags and prevented from anything more dangerous than forming a crocodile.
Children are hitting puberty before they've even crossed a road on their own. Exaggeration? A sixth of girls are reaching puberty by the age of eight - how many of these are still being taken across a road by their parents?
Of course there are real worries - like traffic. There are 80 people injured by hit and run drivers every single week in London.
And in terms of children going missing, the Madeleine McCann story strikes a chord with every parent.
Fear of the unknown
But what's changed? What makes our generation of parents too fearful to let our children play a few streets away?
The 1970s... more innocent, safer, healthier times
Maybe it's because the fear of the unknown now begins on our own doorsteps. We might know a lot about the security situation in Iraq and the mood swings of the dollar - but do we know who lives in our street?
Do we feel confident about the unknown territory between the front door and the school? If not, we try to patrol children's movements - and as they get older, you get the text-message mothers who use the mobile as a kind of parental tagging device.
Also as parents, we're guilty of creating the times we condemn. We get angry and not-in-my-dayish when young children use the sexual language they've heard in the programmes we've watched with them.
We moan about children being unfit and then stop them going out to play. Instead they can stay inside and watch DVDs about other children having adventures.
How about Swallows and Amazons, good wholesome children's yarn. Bunch of kids get in a sailing boat on their own, not a lifejacket between them, live rough on an island, hanging out with the unattached uncle of another bunch of feral kids...
Hold on, where's that remote control?
Below is a selection of your comments.
As a teenager, I feel that adults should loosen up a bit. I say this because I see a good number of people my age who are very irresponsible and don't have a clue. I realize that this is probably partly due to my age group. However, in school and at home many children are being babied. Because of this, I see a lot of people going off to college, or moving out, and they are, quite honestly, clueless. They can't function on their own. Perhaps, instead of constantly monitoring children's every move, parents should discuss (not preach!) with them ways to stay safe, things you should and should not do.
Rhi, Georgia, United States
As the mother of a 13 year old boy and a 10 year old girl I find being a parent in this day and age the hardest job in the world. You keep them in to make sure they are safe and not getting into trouble, we also don't know who lives in our streets as we did when I was growing up and everybody knew everybody else. If we keep them in we are accused of bringing up a nation of obese kids we just can't win! You are damned if you do and damned if you don't!!
Mrs Roberta Ryan, Wombourne, Wolverhampton
I am a 34-year-old and nearly 6 foot, yet often I feel intimidated when I go out walking my dog. How can we expect our children to be safe out alone when we fear for our own safety?
Susan from Scunthorpe, Scunthorpe
Our daughter went to the shops and fell and grazed her leg. A security guard put a plaster on the cut for her. My wife has now reported the security guard as a 'suspected paedophile' to the police, for touching our daughter's grazed leg. I am absolutely in the dog-house for letting my child walk the 100 yards on her own (she's 11). The missus also wants me to spend 30K on a huge 4 by 4 so if we crash 'Only they risk getting hurt, we'll just roll over them'. Depressing .. but if I disagree I'm the irresponsible one ..
London Dave, your wife has a problem that needs attention before she passes on her appalling attitude to your daughter. Fancy reporting the security guard! This is why male teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and no body makes eye contact in the street. Its a real paedophiles dream to have people so unaware and disconnected. The ultimate danger will be our lack of trust.
Sue C, Aust
I am willing to give the freedom to my children but when it comes to safety I am still worried. My son was 5years when he was playing with his friends. Suddenly another big (10yrs) poked his eye with a twig and he had to undergo 5 surgeries. It happened 3years before. But he hasn't got his 100% visibility in the hurt eye. Now I feel he could have better watched TV rather than going to the play ground. So now I am paranoid with both my sons on sending them outside alone.
How true it is. We have to do a risk assessment before we can walk children to the parish church. I know this sort of legislation has come about because of a few irresponsible people in the past (and our litigious society) but a sense of proportion is required.
Surrey teacher, Shepperton, England
I am a father of two sons, 5 and 6. I would love to be able to give them the freedom I had to get away from the parents and go and explore when I was a kid. We have fields nearby that they could play in for hours - I have encouraged them to have a healthy interest in the out doors. This is no different to what my parents did for me when I was growing up however there weren't the idiots on the road, the bullies coming home from school, the knife wielding drug users and muggers loitering around when I was a kid (I had a knife as a boy but it was for cutting twigs off trees and whittling them - not for use as a weapon). These are the undesirable aspects of modern life that has forced parents like me to sadly keep a watchful eye on my children. I don't live in a war zone, I live in 2007. It has been demonstrated recently what can happen when you take your eyes off your children for a short space of time
Simon Robinson, Halesowen
I watched a school trip pass my front window a week or so ago, and was appalled. At approximately 50m intervals, groups of one adult and 3 children would walk by, all in high-vis jackets (of course). The military precision of it all was staggering, but also quite depressing. And of course, it took them 15 minutes to move 25 children from one end of the street to the school gate. I would ask just one question: what on earth was it all for?
The Children's Society paper has valid points - but these must not be in any way thrust towards a parental fault. You are absolutely right that we hear 24/7 about terrible events on our news screens etc. But on an immediate level - we do not know who lives on our street anymore as we did when I used to play out there. Sorry but we are looking at politics and planning . My parents had a greengrocers shop, next to a hairdressers, butchers, newsagents, bakers, haberdashery, sweetshop etc.etc. People saw each other in that community everyday and knew each others' families. I went to school and then played in the streets with my friends until teatime. We do not know our community anymore.
We happen to be those rare lucky ones who live on a slightly hidden away cul-de-sac full of families. Children aged between 4-10 all go out to play to the front, or to get their friends over to play in the garden. Of course it is a team effort for the parents too, all of us "secretly" supervising the children. It does seem to have a very positive effect on the kids, to have that little independence and trust from their parents. Us with younger as well as older children often go out with the little ones and so have a good excuse to keep an eye on the bigger ones too, without them knowing about it ! So all of you that can, get to know your neighbours and make it a team effort to give your children a bit of independent socialising but still keep them safe.
Tuija Rustill, Bedworth
My mum still doesn't let me walk home after dark! I only live a mile away, down a clear, street-lit road! I am meant to be going to Uni in the Summer.. Is she going to be phoning me every waking hour?
I am always amazed when children are invited to a sleep-over and I am expected to send my child to people I have never met in my life! the answer is always no, but I allow my 10yr old to play in the village and she is allowed an hour on her own in the town, this freedom has made her into a confident, healthy 10yr old girl. One more point, we refuse lifts to parties etc unless we know the driver well, my child is too precious to be lost to a careless driver.
Funny how the Seventies seems to have become a golden age of childhood ... I was there and some of the experiences I wandered innocently into were exactly the sort of thing I grew up wanting to protect my children from - so I do. And this rosy concept of innocent kids all playing out friendly together...in today's fragmented society, is it really desirable to let our kids loose to be at the mercy of children who have had little or no moral and social guidance from their parents and for whom the streets are both an escape from their home and an opportunity to find gentler, weaker peers on whom to vent their anger and frustration? OK, so of course there are great positives to be had 'playing out', but let's also bear in mind that our innocent, carefree children won't stay that way for long once they stray too far from home - and that the loss of innocence and the burden of cares is not a particularly desirable thing...
I agree 100% we do not let our children have the same kind of independence that we enjoyed when we were children. And yes Madeleine's disappearance has made me, as a mother, more paranoid. I do not allow my 9 year old twins to go to their den which is just behind the back garden. And I always justify when questioned by them how precious they are to me, and how difficult it was for me to have them. I am guilty of not letting them develop the skills that they would need as adults because they are always under my scrutiny while playing outside. I live in one of the safest estates. Each time I convince myself it would probably be safe to let them play in the town centre park you hear about a murder there.
J Kapoor, Bolton
It's traffic more than anything else. Everyone has a car and everyone drives everywhere - most children have to cross a road to go and play or to visit friends - the road may be the only place they can play. Thank God I grew up in cul-de-sac when most cars were so poorly built their owners spent most of the weekends underneath them rather than hurtling to the hypermarket.
The first day I sent my 6 year old son to school on his own (it's less than a mile, with no major roads, and a well used route by many other pupils from his own school and others) I was phoned by the school and told it was not allowed. The next time I did so, I was informed that I MUST send him in a taxi next time I was unable to accompany him. Despite long arguments about comparative risks of walking with 100s of other children/parents vs. sending him in an unknown car, with an unknown driver, on his own, I have not yet managed to make the school budge on this.
Keren, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset
I believe the threat is real, there are more lunatics out there... so my kids hike with me, go places with me, and are pampered by me... but I can still teach them how to live alone, how to cope... and at least they will be alive to do it.
It's true there's no one watching over our kids when they are out because they don't want to be put on a child molester's register! When I was little we roamed all day eating our meals at whoever's house was the nearest, when we were playing "out" . Our Mums and Dads didn't have the police out searching because they knew Aunty Betty or Uncle Bob were watching out for us. People don't know their neighbours anymore. They keep to themselves, sad isn't it?
Anne Jones, Wrexham