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The Iron Chicken

Keeping the kids indoors because of all those nasty paedophiles, child murderers and teenage gangs. Get a life, says Laurence Inman. Or more to the point, give your children one.

As a society we are failing our children.

I make no apology for coming back to this subject. What we are doing is criminal.

It emerged recently at the inquest of a two-year-old girl, who drowned in a garden pond after having wandered out of her nursery, that she was seen by a passer-by who felt that he should have approached her but was terrified of being thought to be a paedophile.

A few weeks ago two young boys, aged six and seven, were killed on the motorway near Runcorn as they tried to get home before it got too dark. A woman who came across them was interviewed on TV. 'I wish I'd just grabbed them by the hand and taken them home, but you can't these days.'

And will we ever forget the pictures of James Bulger being led to his death fifteen years ago? The grim procession was witnessed by several adults who thought it looked wrong, but did not intervene, again out of fear of the possible consequences.

And the consequences of being thought to be the type of person who is attracted to young children for the wrong reasons are indeed terrible. The tabloids make sure of that.

One of the insidious sub-texts of the McCann story is the suggestion that it is some kind of warning. 'If you don't watch your kids every second of the day and night, the Big Bad Wolf will steal them from their beds. Look! It's happened to them!'

And these stories are not reported in the same way they were decades ago.

Now we are invited to share the family's pain and their necessarily skewed view of events. We now live in a fractured society of isolated units. Instead of being able to see things, especially bad things, through a communally-expressed 'lens' we are, through the media, separately exhorted to feel grief/anger/fear which is unrefined and unmoderated by any wider knowledge or perspective.

We think we are protecting and nurturing our youngsters. Instead we are confining them and in some cases literally killing them. Their lives are continuously, and microscopically, examined, judged, curbed, directed and strictly limited.

All this was crystallised for me the other day when I was buying some eggs in Sainsbury's. The eggs in the expensive, colourful boxes are 'free-range,' 'traditional' and 'farmhouse,' which we naturally think are good things, for which we are prepared to pay a fortune.

Next to them are cheap eggs in dull grey boxes labelled 'From caged birds.' You have to sneak those furtively into your basket.

You see ? We treat bloody hens better than our children!

Anyone over forty will tell you that their childhood featured whole days of being out on the street, or in my case, up The Lickeys, getting dirty, doing slightly dangerous things involving heights and water, with a group of other kids. All day. Out of sight of adults, who were only too glad to see us gone.

Finding out about fear, pain, how to accommodate the shortcomings of others, and our own, and just having fun. And it was free. We didn't have to be driven there. We were all as skinny as whippets.

The park where I walk my dog every day is a kids' paradise. It's got a stream you can dam, woods in which you can build dens, trees to climb and, for most of the year, mud everywhere.

But you hardly ever see gangs of kids ('feral' or 'free-range') messing about down there.

And you probably won't until we completely re-define our values and aims.

When they return it will mean that we have regained a healthy homogeneity in our society, where people of all ages can be in the same places without feeling threatened or disapproved of.

Should we be more willing to let our children play outdoors without adult supervision? Leave a comment on our Message Board.

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