There's nothing quite like the terror of backtracking through the
shopping mall calling your child's name and spinning round frantically,
trying to see in all directions at once. The longest this has ever
happened to me was about three quarters of a minute one busy Saturday
It's nightmarish. The imagination goes wild with all kinds of
unthinkable things. Mike was two aisles away, picking the currants out
of the fruitcakes.
When I found him, I grabbed him and roared all kinds of dire threats if
he ever dared stray from my side again. I scared the bejesus out of the
poor kid for doing nothing other than being a kid.
The problem is that we all have the image of
McCann burned on our brains. I know, rationally, that the
chances of anything similar happening to one of my children is utterly
remote, but when the chance exists at all, it's impossible to be
sensible and proportionate.
It's like Russian Roulette. You've only a one in six chance of losing,
but the consequences are so dire that you'd be better to stick to table
One of the many downsides of this irrational anxiety is that we're
communicating it to our kids. If either of her two younger brothers
disappear round the next corner, my six-year-old Annie goes into
"Daddy, Mike is missing! He's lost!" I have to remind her that she's not
the mammy and that the kid is fine. She's actually driven herself to
tears from anxiety, and she's never even heard of Madeleine McCann.
All kids these days spend their waking hours under constant supervision.
You see a kid walking alone along the footpath and you look behind him
expecting to see at least four shady looking characters in long coats
and mirrored sunglasses following.
There was a story in the papers recently about an American woman, Lenore
Skenazy, who runs a website called freerangekids.com. She says on her
website: "We just do not believe that every time school age kids go
outside, they need a security detail." So she set up a new holiday:
"Take Our Children to the Park . . . And Leave Them There Day."
The idea is to let children off the leash, to have the "unsupervised,
unstructured" play that is more or less unheard of these days.
Unsurprisingly, most of the media in the US went mad at the idea. One
guy called it a "paedophile buffet". But it went off without a hitch.
Skenazy is encouraging a lifestyle kids had when I was a boy, where
everyone just ran around eating worms and screaming at each other and
nobody paid a bit of notice.
My eldest is six, and that is my excuse for deciding that no, this is
not for me. But even when she's 10, or 11, or even 12, am I really going
to leave her off to the park on her own? Will I let her cycle to a
friend's house? To the shop? It's kind of like electric cars and
lentils. Yes, these are good and positive things, but not for me.
There's another side to this, too. I was in the park with my three
children a few weeks ago. I was pushing Annie on the swing and this
little blonde girl came up, sat in the empty swing beside Annie and
tried to push herself off, but couldn't, so she looked back expectantly
at me. At that moment, I'd rather have been confronted by a mugger.
There are few things more terrifying to a mature man than small,
unattended children. I took a step back and looked around frantically
for whoever might be in charge of this little girl, but no one appeared.
Eventually, I decided I was being ridiculous and managed to get her
swinging by awkwardly holding the chains -- just so I wouldn't have to
touch her. This is daft, but I've heard worse -- a guy in a swimming
pool who thought twice about going to help out a little girl in
As with leaving your kids unsupervised, the chances of a kid taking a
notion and deciding you did something you didn't do are utterly remote,
but who wants to take that chance? Not me. Little girls, stay the hell
- John Hearne