I was walking in the park this weekend listening to my i-pod and minding my own business. It was a lovely day and there were lots of families out with their kids. As I walked along on a raised path, a little boy of about seven appeared alongside me trying to push his bicycle up onto the path, a distance of about three feet. He was struggling so I stopped and asked 'Can I give you a hand with that?'
'No thank you', he said and continued unsuccessfully trying to heave his bicycle up the incline. 'Here let me help', I said reaching down to pull on the handlebars. 'No!' he yelled, adding a feeble 'Thank you.' (I live in a nice area where the children are very polite even when they think they are addressing a potential kidnapper). The expression on his face was one of pure panic. He was terrified. What did he think I was going to do? a middle aged woman walking alone in a park full of people?
When did children become so scared of adults? This is a new phenomenon. It affects the behaviour of children to adults but also of adults to children. In the past I have seen children in department stores who were obviously lost and I have gone up to them and taken them by the hand to a member of staff. Would I do that today? probably, but I would definitely think twice about it and if I were a man I would probably walk on by. Some years ago, a three year old girl wandered away from her nursery school playground and was subsequently found drowned in a local pond. The newspapers reported that a man in a white van (what else?) saw the child walking along the road but was too scared to stop and take her to safety in case his behaviour was misinterpreted. I think this story is probably apocryphal but it does reflects adult fears that even well intentioned behaviour may be misunderstood.
The facts are that children are at risk from a small minority of adults, usually those who live in the same family. Stranger danger is much less common yet all adults are treated with suspicion. It's not good for children to be in an environment where they distrust the adults around them, it makes them fearful in public spaces, where they should be able to roam and explore. Paradoxically it makes them less safe since adults are reluctant to intervene even if children seem to be at risk.