Debbie Leigh: It’s a big bad world when you’re a parent

PARENTS' NIGHTMARE: The hunt for April Jones will have triggered millions of 'what if?' questions among parents.
PARENTS' NIGHTMARE: The hunt for April Jones will have triggered millions of 'what if?' questions among parents.
Have your say

With all the awful stories in the news lately – Jimmy Savile, April Jones and Megan Stammers – I imagine millions of parents have been tormenting themselves with “what ifs”.

The question at the heart of each of these very different cases is, how do we keep our children safe?

Whenever we are faced with the kind of disturbing headlines we have been lately, most of us immediately imagine what we would do in their situation.

From the minute your child is born, your overriding function is to keep them safe and well.

But before long you’ve not only got your own internal wrangle over how much freedom to allow, you’ve also got a little one determined to push those limits and do their own thing.

It’s an ongoing dilemma for me. Do I let my toddler climb the metal steps up the slide by herself – knowing one slip could result in a very painful bump and quite posssibly blood?

Or do I do the “helicopter” thing and hover over her, holding the back of her jeans to ensure no such fall can happen?

(Answer: I’m trying to adopt the first but tend towards the second) My friend’s five-year-old has recently been invited to his classmates’ homes to play after school.

She’s delighted he’s made new friends so quickly but is worried about letting him go when she only knows the mum from the school gates.

Only half-joking, I suggested she should say yes, but that she would have to come to tea too.

OK, she might sound (and definitely feel) like a nutter but surely any decent mum would understand where she was coming from?

We all know that child abduction is rare, far more rare than it seems – because of the non-stop coverage.

But every time we are confronted with something like the disappearance and murders of Milly Dowler and Sarah Payne, we can’t help that knee-jerk reaction – to want to lock up our kids to keep them safe.

In a world where a teenager can get raped in the toilets of a busy shopping centre, where nursery workers have abused the tots in their care, and where a talented student can be killed by someone driving the wrong way up a motorway, you could be forgiven for feeling no safety precaution is too extreme.

Then again we risk smothering them with misguided love.

Making decisions, trying new activities and making mistakes is all part of growing up.

We learn quicker from experience than by being warned not to do things.

But for parents trying to do their best for their children, preventing them from getting hurt is second nature.

Letting them continue with something you know will end badly – whether that’s running too fast, cooking a meal or taking a new job – feels like failure.

I know the theories. According to some Harvard psychologist, if you actively wanted your child to be abducted and held by a stranger in the US, you would have to leave them outside unattended for 750,000 years.

But there have been occasions when I’ve lost sight of my little girl for just a second – turned the corner of a supermarket aisle expecting to see her and it’s empty.

I’ve experienced that surge of sickness and panic, triggered by terror that I might never see her again.

So, while I know the “right” thing to do is to accept the stats and let her grow up without trying to protect her every step of her way – that’s very unlikely to be the case.

Tony Yeboah scores in the 1995 Christmas Eve clash between Leeds and Manchester United.

Rob Atkinson: A very Leeds United Christmas Eve