When I was a child, one of my deepest fears was encountering the dangerous stranger in the park who would offer me sweets or ask me to help him search for a lost puppy.
Image: The National Archives
As a child born in the death knell of the 1970s and growing up in the 1980s, I was well versed in 'stranger danger', thanks to Charley - remember him? Back then, I thought child abductors lurked round every corner and that every well-meaning dog walker who smiled at me or little old lady who offered me a jelly baby might be the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in disguise.
Despite my young age, I was acutely aware that bad things DID happen in real life and not just in films. I grew up in Headingley in Leeds, not far from the spot where the Yorkshire Ripper claimed one of his victims. And yet, as a child, I still played out without my parents and trotted off to the park with my friends.
Now I am a parent myself, I am faced with a dilemma. Do I terrify my own children about strangers? As an adult, I now know the uncomfortable truth. That children are far more likely to be hurt by people they know and trust and that simply never talking to strangers isn't always enough to keep them safe.
There is also a sense of confusion and hypocrisy about the 'never talk to strangers' message. How can I tell my six-year-old to never speak to someone she doesn't know and then tell her off when she doesn't say thank you to the shop assistant or answer the nice little old woman in the supermarket who compliments her outfit and asks her how old she is? And what if she gets lost in a shop or at the park? Would making her think all strangers are dangerous leave her paralysed in fear when she actually needs one to help her?
I don't let my children play out without me yet. But, if truth be told, that is more about traffic than strangers. I worry they aren't sensible enough to keep themselves out of danger or that they may copy other children by doing things I wouldn't want them to. Of course, any parent has a deep-rooted terror that one day the scary stranger from their nightmares might walk down their street or hang around their local playground. So what should we tell our children?
The main thing I try to drill into my six-year-old and three-year-old is that they should never go anywhere with anyone without mummy or daddy saying it is okay first. And if they get lost, the first thing they should do is stay where they are and wait for me to find them. But if something goes wrong and they find themselves on their own and needing help then things start to get a bit more complicated. Although I know that no one is truly safe, I've tried to introduce the idea that in certain situations, some people are (probably) safer than others.
If they're lost in a shop, then it's okay for them to go and tell the person working behind the till. Or if they're at a theme park, they could tell the person operating a ride or working in one of the cafes. If all else fails, I'd rather they spoke to another mummy with children than a random person on their own.
As with most elements of parenting, the stranger danger issue is a minefield. There are so many grey areas. You simply can't come up with solutions for every possible scenario. All you really can do is try to teach your child to make sensible choices and never be persuaded to do something which makes them feel worried or uncomfortable.
Read more of my thoughts on my blog - Three monkeys and a notebookSuggest a correction