Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Do we overprotect our children?

By Rhodri Owen
BBC News

Adventure playground
Children want to play outside, says Mike Greenaway of Play Wales

Who would be a parent these days? For that matter, who'd be a child either?

Every day we read that our young children are becoming more insular, sedentary and over-reliant on technology.

And yet which of us dare open our back door to let them play in the street or the park for fear of "stranger danger" or busy traffic?

Two recent surveys suggest this is a common domestic dilemma.

One poll of children aged six to 14 years suggested that more than half wanted more freedom to play. Another poll of adults suggested that 78% of parents in Cardiff alone did not feel it was safe to let their children outside to play.

It will perhaps depend on whether you are a parent or a child as to which view you sympathise with.

My 11 year old daughter goes out on her own as we believe that children should get exercise in the fresh air
Greg, Newport

But the reality, when it comes to the dangers that exist today for our children outside the home, is that our perception is skewed.

In spite of the impression given by high-profile media coverage in Britain and the rest of the world of the James Bulger or Madeleine McCann cases, official figures show that instances of child abduction remain relatively few and far between in the UK, and have not greatly increased in recent years.

It is a point recognised by the Good Childhood report, published in February 2009 after a three-year inquiry into issues affecting children in the UK.

The report says that "... such hazardous events are incredibly rare," and that "the number of children murdered by strangers has been around its current level for decades. Home Office figures... show that the risks here are tiny, compared with other risks faced by children, including risks from family members."

And yet still the question persists of how much risk, if any, we should allow into the lives of our children.

'Parents need support'

"The Good Childhood Inquiry highlighted a predicament for parents," acknowledges Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, which commissioned it.

"On the one hand we understand the importance of freedom for our children but on the other we are afraid of the risks posed by the outside world.

Riding a bike
Are parents overly afraid of the risks posed by the outside world?

"Outside and unsupervised play, and the subsequent development of friendships, is crucial to a good childhood, and parents need support in encouraging this with their children."

Mike Greenaway, director of Play Wales, which advises the Welsh Assembly Government on its strategy for children's play, agrees.

"Children have been telling us since we started asking them that they want to play outside, but we are not hearing them," he says.

"Their presence on the street is becoming less and less legitimate - the perception of an Asbo culture has contributed to that.

"I'm not sure we know what effect this is going to have on our children.

"Educationalists tell us that a child learns by playing. By removing the opportunity for children to learn we are creating a situation where, when they are older, when their presence on the street is seen as more legitimate, it will be like throwing them into the deep end."

'Social phobias'

Dr Helen Holmes, a Cardiff-based consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry, has experience of working with young people who have been thrown in the deep end in this way and have struggled to cope.

She says: "We are certainly seeing children who have extreme social phobias, who are unable to go to school, go shopping or socialise outside the house.

"I think there have always been children like this but the feeling is that we are seeing more of these extremely phobic children, sometimes with extremely anxious parents who see the world as a dangerous place and try to protect their children."

So what should a parent do for the best?

John Jayce of Barnardos Cymru, who chairs Fforwm Magu Plant, the Welsh Parenting Forum, believes it is all about gradually building up responsibility in a child.

He said: "There is a dilemma here but then there is a dilemma about most things involving children growing up, such as what they should eat and so on.

"It's all about giving your children increasing responsibility, and weighing each judgement out. Do you live in a cul de sac or on a main road, for example. Do they understand the risks? Can they cross the road safely?

"It may be that your child starts off playing in the back garden. Then if that goes okay they are allowed to play in the street or a play area for an hour, and if they come back after that hour then perhaps they are allowed out for an hour and a half. Then you build it up from there.

"Going out to play is an important part of the process of preparing a child for independence."

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