Lessons in life

kids playing

My daughter Katy asked me if she could play out with her friends yesterday. She’s eight. I didn’t know what to say. I’d just been reading April Jones’s mother’s heart-breaking words about how she will carry the guilt for allowing her to play out with her friends that terrible evening for the rest of her life. It wasn’t her fault that a predatory pervert snatched and killed her daughter, but no one will ever convince her of that. If April had not been outside that night that man would not have had the opportunity to kill her, but he might have found another way, another day.

Locking up our children is not the way to keep them safe. It just exposes them to different risks – less dramatic but equally damaging. If they don’t play out they may be less likely to develop the social and street skills that may prevent them from running wild as teenagers or wandering naively into dangerous confrontations on buses with boys with knives. They may turn into isolated suicidal teenagers (100,000 adolescents take their own lives every year worldwide, according to the Samaritans, compared with 11 children a year in Britain who are killed by strangers). Who knows?

Every mother will have had at least one heart-stopping moment with their child – it may happen when they are first born, it may not happen till they are five, 15 or 25 but it’s a rare parent that escapes it altogether. Katy did go missing once for 20 terrible minutes when she was three. It was a sunny summer lunchtime and we were walking down the road to her big brother and sisters’ primary school to help out at the gardening club. She wanted to take a detour round the back of a block of flats through their garden and meet me at the other side. She and her brother had done it a dozen times. It was a journey of two minutes. She took longer than I expected or perhaps I wanted to meet her halfway, but somehow we missed each other. I walked round the side of the building probably as she had turned back to meet me the other way to meet her and ended up doing a farcical Keystone Kops-style circling of the building each missing the other. Eventually she toddled off up the road alone while I frantically searched the gardens behind the flats for her. People came out of their balconies to ask what was wrong and I vividly remember one elderly lady asking me what had happened and how old she was. “She’s three,” I said realising then that I had just allowed my baby out of my sight, how young she was and how irresponsible I had been. I dialled 999 there and then. The police were there in minutes, and she turned up safe and sound in the back of a police car less than ten minutes later. She had almost made it to the school by herself until someone in the railway ticket office spotted her and called the police at the same time I did.

We take all the precautions we can and for now Katy will have to make do with the play centre and the adventure playground, both of which are supervised by professional childcare staff who are CRB checked, trained in first aid and know how to spot and stop a bully or a stranger at 50 paces. But there will come a time when she has to cross the road on her own, get on a bus or train on her own, and judge whether a stranger is a friend or a murderer, and whether to meet up with him for a drink or not. We can’t be the Green Cross Code man all their lives. All we can do is try to do our best to help them grow up not to need one and then hope for the best. There will always be speeding drunks, lorries turning right in front of bikes, weirdos in vans and crazed knifemen out there.

I don’t have the answer, but there was a glimmer of relief, joy and perspective at the end of last week reading the news that a seven year old had been found safe and well after wandering away from the family tent at a campsite near Stroud the night before. He had been missing all night. The whole campsite turned out with police to look for him – each hoping to find him and dreading what they might find. One more family has survived their heart-stopping moment and will go home with nothing more terrible than an anecdote that will outlive them all. Sometimes fairy stories do have a happy ending and children get lost in the woods and emerge the next morning safe and sound.

Posted by Amanda Blinkhorn

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