Swallows and Amazons – How Childhood Has Been Stolen From Our Children

For me, “Swallows and Amazons” is the greatest children’s adventure novel of all time.  But this is not exactly a review: it’s more about how our present generation of children has had their freedom and lives stolen from them by society’s excessive fears for their safety.  Swallows and Amazons is all about trusting young children to take sensible calculated risks – risks that children today are denied.


“Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.”

So reads the telegram that the Walker children have been waiting for, in Arthur Ransome’s 1930 children’s novel “Swallows and Amazons”.  It’s the tale of the perfect summer holiday; a summer the children spend sailing a small dinghy on ‘the lake’ in the English Lake District, camping on ‘Wild Cat Island’.

Swallows and Amazons cover

This image may be copyright. It is used under fair right provisions for educative purposes only.

That telegram is from their father, and it is a mark of trust. A trust that his children are not ‘duffers’.  That his children can be trusted to act sensibly and to take responsibility for their own actions.  Alone; without adults to tell them what to do or how to do it.  Adults exist in this book, but they are peripheral.  The children are the active agents: they are the ones calling the shots and making the decisions.

If I can think of one novel that has influenced me more than any other it is Swallows and Amazons.  It is a book I come back to, a book that bears repeated reading, a book that defines both me and how I view the world.  When I say ‘one novel’, I don’t mean ‘one children’s novel’.  I mean ‘one novel, period’.  This is the book.

It has profoundly affected my life – I’ve not done everything that happens in the book myself, but I’ve done a thousand similar things both as a child and as an adult that I attribute directly to the effect of this book.  I’ve camped in the wild as a child, I’ve fished for my dinner, and aged 10 I was sailing high-performance racing dinghies.

A little later I was doing serious rock-climbing and abseiling. And then surfing the massive waves of SW Australia.  I’ve kayaked in shark-infested waters (you haven’t lived until a shark longer than your kayak cruises slowly past and ignores you completely!)  And I’ve lain on my back in the remote deserts of Australia and marvelled at the glories of the night sky.

And I’ve done them all safely and responsibly, and I seriously doubt I would have done any of them without Swallows and Amazons, simply because the book tells children “you can do exciting stuff – so long as you are sensible about how you do it”.  And I took that message to heart, and it changed my life.

I read it first when I was 5.  I was a precocious reader – I suspect it is meant for what we now call ‘tweens’, and intelligent tweens at that.  When my Grade One teacher realised I was unchallenged by “Janet and John” and “Dick and Dora” she suggested I should bring my own books to school.  I remain forever grateful to her: the first book I brought was Swallows and Amazons.

So, what happens in Swallows and Amazons?  Well: not much.  The children sail ‘Swallow’. They camp on Wild Cat Island, doing all their own cooking. They catch fish to eat; they build camp fires to cook; they use knives and hatchets and tools. They even construct a lighthouse in a pine tree that requires considerable climbing skill to reach the first branches many metres above the ground.

These children are competent – but not exceptionally so.  They also make mistakes, just as all children do.

What else happens?  They meet Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon Pirates, and have a most satisfactory “war”, first with the Amazons , and then later with ‘Captain Flint’, Nancy and Peggy’s uncle, who wrongly accuses the Walker children of stealing something from his houseboat. The Walker children find the stolen ‘treasure’.  I won’t tell you what that treasure is – I don’t want to spoil your pleasure.  Read it and find out for yourselves.

Why am I writing about this? Because this book defines how much we have lost; how much has changed in the lives of our children.

The four children’s ages are not stated, but it seems reasonable to believe that they are between 7 and 13 years old.  The youngest, Roger, cannot swim. Yet his parents trust his older brother, John, to take him sailing on a large lake in a small dinghy.

Because that is the core of this book.  It’s about trust.  Trusting children to act sensibly and responsibly, even in the absence of direct parental supervision.

When Swallows and Amazons was published it took the children’s publishing world by storm.  It was the biggest selling children’s novel of its time.  Think “Harry Potter” and you won’t be far wrong.  It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and it is still in print.  If you were a child in the 1930s (or, at least, an English middle class child) you read Ransome. You loved Ransome.  Because Ransome was writing your life.

‘Swallows and Amazons’ was widely reviewed at the time of publication; and if you read those reviews the one thing you won’t find is anyone suggesting that this was not a realistic representation of a middle class child’s holiday.

Not one reviewer says, “Hang on a moment: this isn’t real!  No child would REALLY be allowed to do this by their parents!”

No; what you find in those reviews is:

“the story of their adventures on a little island in the middle of an English lake is thrilling just because it is not fabulous.”

“The only tinge of sadness that crosses my perfect enjoyment (I have read it twice already, by the way) is that born of the fact that I can’t, now, enjoy the thrill open to the younger reader, who will, after reading, proceed to master the craft of sailing and set forth on wondrous and perilous adventures like John and Susan, Titty and Roger.”

“To read of their busy and adventurous days is to envy them their good fortune and their sensible relatives, who had enough imagination and self-control to keep out of the serious business on the island.”

“There comes a time when every child (except the born duffer) wants to cast off, camp out in the woods, own and explore a desert island, prove, that is, some ability to live independently of mama, papa and civilisation. And so this book, which tells a story not beyond the bounds of possibility, manages to get, too, the thrill and zest of romantic adventure.”

“Mr. Ransome has written a really delightful book – a book of open air and fact and fun which fulfils the stirring promise of its title. It contains the lore of sailing and the lore of fishing and the lore of camping.  The excitement of discovery and exploration of pirates and warfare makes its pages turn with increasing speed. It is written about real children for real children”

That last sentence bears repeating: “It is written about real children for real children.”

Exactly. This is what real children did in the 1930s.  No suggestion that this is unrealistic. This is not some Enid Blyton fantasy.  This is what real children did then.

So, why don’t they do it now?  If this was possible then, surely it is possible now?  If not, why not?

The children are not exceptional.  The things they do are not exceptional.  Arthur Ransome writes about ordinary things, done by ordinary children.  The thing that makes this book exceptional is Ransome’s ability to get inside the minds of the children … to make their simple everyday experiences exciting and interesting, and above all believable.

Are the children insipid paragons of virtue?  No. They do some rather unwise things, including a hair-raising episode of night sailing.  But they are sensible; they quickly realise their actions could lead to tragic consequences and they tie up for the night to wait for dawn.

And in the end, the story comes to a most satisfactory conclusion.  Nobody gets hurt, even when a catastrophic storm destroys their camp in the middle of the night.

I honestly believe that there is no reason why children today should not be doing exactly the same things the Walker children do in Swallows and Amazons.  Children have not changed: society has changed, and changed for the worse.

Nowadays the Walker parents might well be charged with child endangerment or worse.  Allowing young children to camp and sail unsupervised; to use real tools like sharp knives and hatchets; to build fires and construct pine-tree lighthouses?  Surely this is utterly reckless!  Surely these children are being subjected to the most unreasonable dangers!

They meet and talk to complete strangers, like charcoal burners, and even enter their hut so they can see the pet adder kept by one of the burners!  Think of the “stranger danger” rhetoric that is constantly being foisted on us by the media.  Isn’t this evidence of an appalling abrogation of a parent’s duty of care?

Well, in my view: NO.  The things that the children do, and the actions the parents take are entirely reasonable.  The parents trust their children, and the children prove over and over again that that trust is warranted.  Yes, the children take some risks, but they prove that they are quite capable of assessing those risks and acting appropriately.

And I honestly and sincerely believe that if parents of today gave their children the same level of trust, then the vast majority of today’s children could do exactly the same as the Walker children and with exactly the same results. The parents’ trust would be rewarded and the children would act equally responsibly.

Children today are desperate for trust; they long for responsibility; they sincerely desire to do the right thing. But we as a society won’t let them.  And both society and the children are the losers for it.

When we don’t trust children they don’t learn how to take responsibility and they suffer real and measurable harm because of it. [PDF 233KB]

When we don’t give children reasonable freedom they take freedom in unreasonable and unsafe ways. When we protect children from all possibility of harm (however minor) we ensure they will suffer greater harm because they don’t know how to assess real hazards. [PDF, 31KB]

When we don’t teach young children how to safely use simple everyday tools, like fire, knives, saws, hatchets and drills they run the risk of serious injury because they will make serious mistakes in their use – and use them they will, if not when young, when older.

When we tell children that all strangers are dangerous we get tragic consequences.  Many children have come to harm – sometimes fatally – because they were too scared to ask strangers for help.  In that particular case a seven year old child was lost in a forest and a massive hunt was organised. Fortunately the child was found relatively unharmed – but she was lost for 4 hours, terrified, and “she had heard men yelling for her earlier, but was scared to approach them.” Note also that the first assumption made was not that she was lost, but that she had been abducted, and members of the public who wanted to help search for the child were refused permission by the authorities.  This is madness.

And no, this is not an isolated incident: here’s one far more serious.  Brennan Hawkins, 11, spent FOUR days lost in the Utah Mountains.  “Brennan told us he thought that he was going to die three times, and he said a prayer asking God for directions. His biggest fear was being abducted, so when he spotted rescuers on horseback, he stayed hidden.”  Brennan is lucky to be alive, and the most likely reason he would have died is because he had been taught to fear abduction above all else.  Again, this is madness.

Stranger danger exists but abduction by strangers is a very rare crime. The vast majority of strangers are of no danger to any child.  The sensible response is not to teach children to fear all strangers.  It is to teach them effective protective behaviours, starting with the people most likely to be dangerous to them.  Not strangers, but family members and people known to them and their families.

Findings from the ABS Personal Safety Survey (2005) indicated that for participants who had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15 … 13.5% identified that the abuse came from their father/stepfather, 30.2% was perpetrated by other male relative, 16.9% by family friend, 15.6% by acquaintance/neighbour and 15.3% by other known person … 10.7% of child sexual abuse incidents were found to be perpetrated by females. McCloskey and Raphael (2005) argued that female perpetrators of child sexual abuse could be much higher as many cases go under-reported.   (ABS, 2005).

And we must teach children that when they are lost, injured or in distress they should ask strangers for help.  To teach them otherwise is to expose them to real danger, danger far more likely to cause them real harm, possibly fatal harm, than the minuscule danger posed by strangers.

Other children have died because strangers were too afraid of false accusations to help the child in distress.  This was not a case of a rare and heartless person – an exception:  nearly 50% of men and 30% of women in a recent study said they would be too scared to help a child in distress because they feared being falsely accused of child abduction.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.  Our children’s childhoods have been stolen from them by unreasonable fears for their safety.  I fervently hope that this will change and that society will come to its collective senses.  That young children will once again be able to experience the sort of joyous adventures that the Walker children experience in Swallows and Amazons.

I hope that children will be allowed and encouraged to take responsibility for themselves.  That they will again be given the freedom to roam their neighbourhoods.  That parks will be full of children playing together without the ever-present spectre of the helicopter parent.

That children will walk to school or ride their bikes.  That kids will have pocket knives and know how to use them.  That they will know how to build a safe fire and cook their own food on it.  That they can go camping alone on their local equivalent of Wild Cat Island.

And that parents will be able to say: “My kid’s head is screwed on right! The one thing I’m sure of is I can trust my kid to do the right thing, because my kid knows how to look after him/herself.”

It can happen.  And I’m an optimist – I sincerely believe it will happen.  Society has swung so far in one insane direction that the only possible place for it to go now is back to where it ought to be – a world where we trust children and give them the freedom and responsibility that they so desperately need.


I would like to thank three people, without whom this blog post would not have been possible.

The first is Lenore Skenazy, writer of the fabulous Free Range Kids site and blog, from which I have drawn many of the references and information used in the latter part of the post.

The other is Tim Gill, writer of the equally fabulous Rethinking Childhood blog and the book ‘No Fear’.  Without Tim’s ideas and inspiration I could never have written this post.

The third is Aunt Annie, of the Aunt Annie’s Childcare blog. Annie gave me valuable criticism and suggestions that helped me get this post back on track when I had lost my way.

My profound thanks go to all three.  Alec.

15 thoughts on “Swallows and Amazons – How Childhood Has Been Stolen From Our Children

  1. Alex, I couldn’t agree more. I want to add to your well made points about children learning what to do and being trusted to do so. I believe the way we are currently teaching here in the UK robs children of the opportunity to learn to trust themselves. Everything is broken down into such teeny steps, and the children are directed to step along those teeny steps, that they are in fact unable to decide for themselves if they ever get the chance to do so. This is a blog that I wrote but have never actually published, you might like it, it is clear from your blog that you feel passionately about children and the way they learn, so do I! All the best, Rachel (ex teacher, ex deputy head, mother of two, now creative play worker)

    And we wonder where the magic has gone…

    1. As a teacher there are few things more rewarding than seeing a pupil get fired up by something, or seeing that “ah-ha” moment when understanding dawns…”I get it now”.
    This is pure magic.
    There is a terrific art to knowing when to let the joy of the moment just be, and when to gently add a little guidance, or encouragement…..good teachers seem to do this without even knowing how they do it.

    2. Currently however, there is such an emphasis on measuring progress, in such teeny weeny steps, that I think it is actually killing the joy of learning anything. I have so many issues with this it’s hard to know where to start…

    3. Let’s sort out a few basics to begin with; I do think we need structure to ensure reasonable breadth and depth across the year groups. I don’t have an issue with measuring children’s progress per se. BUT…..

    4. When you place such an tight emphasis on hitting specific targets, you miss so many other developments. When you are busy marking stories for use of ‘wow’ words, paragraphs, reader interest, punctuation, spelling etc, you can miss all sorts of other things. For instance, there is no grade to give for the way that Freddie (usually quite disinterested in stories) suddenly got all fired up by playing Vikings at playtime with the new child, Gary. He wrote 3 pages instead of his usual painful half a page. Where is the box to tick for new friendships, or for interest in history? There isn’t one. It doesn’t get a grade that Ofsted will notice, so therefore it is not valued.

    5. This focus on progress has led to the key subjects being broken down into such tiny steps, all specifically taught and graded….I think that makes it highly likely that the purpose of the very thing you were trying to teach will get lost. This example is (sadly) completely true. At parents evening a mother noticed that her child had never managed to finish a story in her writing book. Lots of beginnings, lots of marking, but no evidence of ever getting to the end. The mother asked about this, and the teacher replied, “It doesn’t matter, because she hits all her targets in the first few paragraphs. She’s very clever; she knows what she has to do”.
    WHOA! What do we write stories for? To tell to someone else, to inform them, to scare them, to give them enjoyment. NOT to achieve targets. And, what about the joy of finishing and publishing your own story? What about the self satisfaction of a job well done? What kind of system scores this child highly as a writer of stories, when she has no experience of finishing a story and receiving audience feedback?

    6. Teachers have targets to meet these days, “you’ve got to get 75% of your class to level 4”. Hang on, hang on, what about starting with the children that we have, and what is a realistic target for them personally? If we must have targets like that at all, let’s base them on the actual people we are working with, rather than on what the powers that be wish to see.

    7. Real learning is joyful, surprising even, but definitely pleasurable. Think of your child’s face the first time they walk, or ride a bike without help…they shout, ”I’m doing it! I’m doing it!”. Imagine if we responded “that’s level 3a pedalling, your next target is to get the correct angle of your feet!” There is a time for celebrating, for feeling the joy of the learning, not always measuring it to death.

    8. Many creative processes, such as writing a story/poem or making an artwork are in real life rather muddled & personal processes. One step forward, two back, three sideways…they are not a linear thing. Sometimes the style of one person is definitely out-of-step with current thinking, but that doesn’t make it wrong. They may be a celebrated genius in a few years. I heard recently of children in one school who have a card ladder of achievement for each subject, which sits beside them and reminds them of the steps they must take to achieve the next grade. All of them, going up the same darn ladders. Learning can be a leap of understanding or a backwards slide, it is not always a steady step-by-step march (this is making me think of the goose-step).

    Lets imagine if the current school system was responsible for people’s sex-lives. The two partners approach the bedroom, target cards in hand. “I’m working on using a wider variety of strategies to excite your interest” announces one, “I’ve got to improve my use of bedroom talk” says the other. Things progress….”I just tickled the back of your left knee…was that quite exciting, really exciting, or not at all exciting?” asks partner 1, clipboard and ticksheet in hand. “Oh darling, just do to it to me” responds the other, trying to work on both bedroom talk and actually getting on with it…. Things progress further. “Right, so I think I managed a 4a with my strategies there” says partner 1, but partner 2 is lying rather quietly, wondering where the magic has gone…

    • Thank you Rachel – I’m so glad you get what I’m trying to say here!

      Re your unpublished blog post – why haven’t you published it?! It’s great! How about submitting it to “The Secret Teacher” blog on The Guardian? I reckon they would jump at it! It might need a little editing (there are a couple of rough spots – nothing major but it could be improved, I think). Go for it! What have you got to lose 🙂

  2. A passionate, personal, powerful piece Alex, and I am honoured that you have cited me as an influence. I heard Hugh Lupton speak once, on Ransome’s life and work, and it was an extraordinary experience. Lupton is a relative of Ransome’s and one of the UK’s foremost storytellers. I will never forget the way he wove together tales of Ransome’s own adventures – escaping war-torn Russia with his lover (Trotsky’s secretary) – with insights from Ransome’s work, and with his own tales. And of course as you say so well, Swallows and Amazons is a perfect fictional starting point for exploring ideas about children’s competences.

    • Tim, the honour is entirely mine – your work is a constant inspiration to me, and “No Fear” is a book that will, I think, endure and influence people interested in childhood for years to come.

      I’m glad that you share my passion for Ransome, a fascinating writer and not just of children’s stories. Thank you!

  3. Alec, I love love love this post. (Oh, and you did a great job with the edits!)

    What you say is so true. As a child I used to go down to the creek in the gully with my brother, unaccompanied by adults, and explore nature in my own time and my own way. We couldn’t swim either. Our parents would probably be arrested these days in the US for letting us do that, but it formed so much of who I am and I have so many wonderful memories of that time. This overprotection of children is completely crazy!

    • Exactly. As a 6 year old my parents were entirely comfortable with me playing alone or with friends in “the brickfields”, an abandoned clay quarry area where all the clay pits were now lakes.

      I could not swim, but they trusted me to know that while it was quite safe to paddle on the edges, collecting sticklebacks and tadpoles, I was not to go into water above knee-depth. They told me in no uncertain terms that deeper water was dangerous and that I could drown if I didn’t stick to the safe edges. And so, because I was trusted I respected their wisdom, and I happily played in the shallows and would never have thought of doing anything else.

      I’m not trying to pretend that I was a totally virtuous child – as a teenager I did some fairly dumb and dangerous things. But that’s pretty much the definition of the nature of teenagers. You push the limits. And I was never so dumb as to not realise that the things I was doing WERE dumb and dangerous. I knew that precisely because I had had the early experiences that taught me what was safe and what wasn’t. I may have done dumb and dangerous things but at least I KNEW they were dumb and dangerous – which is probably why I survived them.

  4. All I can say to your hopes and optimism for children is AMEN! I use to roam the streets and parks all day with my friends till the street lights came on at night and i was 6 years old. We had many safe houses we could visit up and down the street

    • Exactly – we all used to do these things, and there is no reason whatsoever that children should not be doing them now. The world has NOT got more dangerous for children since then (with the possible exception of the greatly Thanks Lesleyincreased amount of road traffic).

      Thanks, Lesley! I agree completely.

      If you take your information from the general media you would think there has been an explosion of crime against children and of serious accidents and harm in all forms. But the reverse is true – all the stats show that children are at less risk of those harms now than they were then. The REAL risks that have increased come almost entirely from the ridiculous emphasis on protecting children from harms that are very unlikely to occur.

      Endless research shows that children today are far more likely to be obese, far more likely to suffer associated ill-health, far more likely to be unfit, far more likely to be clumsy, far more likely to be unable to assess real risk, far less likely to have well-developed social negotiation skills and so on and so on – and much of the reason for these very real harms and dangers is PRECISELY because the children are being over-protected and are not outside playing vigorously with their peers.

      Instead they are trapped indoors, fed a constant diet of screen-time and passive play with electronic toys that do nothing to stimulate real play or real development. They are missing out on learning not just physical skills, but the social skills that can only be learnt through free, unrestricted, unsupervised play outside with their peers.

      No amount of adult-organised team sports or “play dates” or over-scheduled “activities” can make up for the loss of social and physical learning that comes through free play. When children play freely together they must learn to negotiate their social interactions with each other – and they do so. But in the over-scheduled world of the modern child all that negotiation learning is lost because it becomes mediated and controlled by adults.

      The child playing soccer learns the rules of soccer and that the referee is in control. That’s fine – if all you want is for the child to learn how to play soccer. But the child who is playing with a soccer ball with other children, without adults to mediate and control the play, will learn that they have to develop and negotiate the “rules” themselves and that this is complex and difficult and they will have to compromise and consider the other children’s ideas and feelings. Or else the play will break down (as it frequently does). And the child will learn that if they want the play to continue they will have to work out a solution that is satisfactory to ALL the children.

      That’s why free play WORKS, and that’s HOW free play works. It’s how children have been learning through play for tens of thousands of years. We, as a society, are conducting an experiment in changing how children play. The experiment has only been going on for a very short time – a few decades at most. But the results are in, and they show clearly that the experiment is wrong and dangerous, and harmful to children and to society. It’s time to end the experiment and get back to real play.

  5. hi.. came across your comment on face book about your blog and decided to have a read,What l read was amazingly true and accurate of a childhood that was once lived. My Father gave myself and my sister that book to read when we were young and we as children had the opportunities to explore and express our sense of adventure to our parents. We were blessed to live in a time that has long since disappeared….for as children of my childhood, play was seen as the natural thing children did and when you walked out of the back door all you had to say was you were going out to play and in my case l was reminder to be home when the streetlights came on. Children need the opportunity to explore and experiment with the knowledge of their parents trust and belief in them. Kate

    • Thanks Kate, and I’m glad you loved Swallows and Amazons.

      Re your childhood: that was exactly my experience too – I just said – “I’m going out to play” and my parents wouldn’t even ask “Where?” The only rule in my family was “you have to be home in time to wash up and be ready for dinner”. From around age 8 we didn’t even have to come home after school – we could just go visit friends or go play in the bush or whatever. We were trusted! And that wasn’t unusual – the same was true for the vast majority of my friends.

      At age 6 my parents taught me how to take the bus on my own. So I could catch the bus to my local village (this was in England, before we came to Australia). Not that I couldn’t have walked there or ridden my bike – and I did that too – but taking the bus was fun, a little adventure, and for the princely sum of tuppence it was a bit of an extravagance since my weekly pocket money was sixpence.

      At age 7 or so my brother and I used to ride our bikes 7 miles to a nature reserve and reservoir to go fishing (with almost total lack of success, but that didn’t worry us!). It was a big ride for a little kid, a 14 mile round trip, but it wasn’t unusual. Plenty of my friends did the same. We lived in a rural area, but it was only 11 miles from central London, so it wasn’t like we were in some tiny hamlet where everyone knew everyone else. We met strangers every day – and we talked with them frequently in our travels. Never once did we come to harm, nor were we discouraged from talking with strangers by adults. Yes, some children did come to harm from strangers in those days – but stranger abduction is astonishingly rare, and no more common now than it was then.

      And as I said in the post, I see no reason why children today should not have exactly this sort of freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Without freedom children don’t learn responsibility, which is something internal – they learn obedience, which is something imposed by external forces. And they learn that they can’t trust themselves. That’s a tragedy, and it must change.

    • True, Quin. If you simply add all those stats it adds up to 102.2%, which is clearly impossible.

      But where your logic breaks down is in assuming that all the statistics cited except those specifically attributed to women (that figure of 10.7%) are entirely perpetrated by males. And those stats do NOT say that; in fact, in those stats only 43.7% of abuse is specifically attributed to males. 47.8% is not attributed to any specified gender – they might be male, they might be female, but based upon the figures given, we can not tell.

      What those figures tell us is that according to this data (and it is very solidly researched data with strong support in the scientific community) 91.5% of children who were sexual abused before the age of 15 were abused either by their father/stepfather, by another male relative, by a family friend, by an acquaintance/neighbour or by another known person. This implies that only 8.5% of abuse of children under the age of 15 was by a person (of unspecified gender) who was NOT either a relative or well-known to the child or family – in other words, “a stranger”.

      There is a separate figure given that suggests that of all abuse of children 10.7% was carried out by women. But we do not know from this figure whether those women were related to the child or known to them, or whether they were strangers.

      There is a separate study cited (McCloskey and Raphael (2005)) which argues that figure of 10.7% may be unrealistically low and that “female perpetrators of child sexual abuse could be much higher as many cases go under-reported”. But this is not a data-driven study – it does not claim to quantify how much higher such abuse might be; it merely argues that there are plausible reasons for thinking that the figure might be higher than the currently available data suggests.

      Getting good data on sexual abuse is notoriously difficult. How and where you source your data can give astonishingly differing results. For example, if you use statistics of cases of sexual abuse reported to police which result in conviction of the alleged offender you get rates which are a tiny fraction of those found from other methods of sourcing data (many cases of abuse are never reported to police; conviction rates are relatively low, even in cases where abuse has definitely occurred, because it may not be possible to prove that the abuse was carried out by the person accused of the abuse; they may be innocent, or they may just not be able to be proved to be guilty beyond reasonable doubt).

      If instead you use clinical data from medical examination of children you tend to get much higher rates than from the police data; even so, many cases of child abuse are never brought to the attention of medical authorities. However, if you use anonymous self-reporting surveys which ask adults if they were ever sexually abused as children the rates tend to be vastly higher again.

      Which is the “correct” rate? That depends on what you mean by “correct”. At some level, they are all “correct”, for a given value of “correct”. But there is an increasing scientific consensus that anonymous self-report studies are “the gold standard”; the method that most closely approximates the true figures of abuse within the community, although they have the disadvantage of being retrospective – they tend to tell us what the figures were, not what the actual figures are right now. That requires other forms of research, and they tend to be fraught with both technical and ethical problems. Consider – how do you ask a 12 month old if they have been sexually abused? Unless there is clear clinical evidence of abuse you simply can’t tell because the child can’t tell you. And there is the social stigma attached to sexual abuse, and the real fear that children have that reporting abuse may make things worse, not better. It is hideously complex and difficult research to do.

      Further, it’s worth pointing out that most of the data that I cited is from an Australian set of studies, carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It is solid research, but it tells us only about sexual abuse in Australia. Research in other countries and other cultures can give very different results. However, it would be fair to say that in general in all countries, and in all cultures, the research agrees that children are far more likely to be abused by relatives and people known to them than by strangers. And that they are far more likely to be abused by males than by females. The quoted figure of 10.7% comes from a Canadian study, but data is available from many countries and while figures vary considerably in no country is sexual abuse more common by female perpetrators than by males.

    • Thanks, Karen! And if you DO read Swallows and Amazons I guarantee you will enjoy it. You may even get hooked like me, and read the other 11 in the series 🙂 Like all good children’s books they are thoroughly enjoyable for adults too.

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