Saturday, 9 October 2010
Would you help a child? Seriously?
I posted yesterday about the ridiculous case of the dinner lady suspected of grooming a child for sex by offering a biscuit to the child.
I have two daughters, who are now in their mid-20s. When they were little, I was fully involved in their care and upbringing. I changed their nappies, I dressed them, I took them to the toilet, I bathed them every evening. It didn't seem at all unusual. When they grew older, they started to close the door when they were in the bath, and not run round the house starkers as they had done before. This seemed quite natural to me, and I took the hint, as by that time they were quite capable of looking after themselves. Parents start by doing everything, and then have to learn to fade into the background.
The thought that this was in some way wrong, or even questionable, never crossed my mind. Both girls were pretty, and slim and active, but I never saw them with anything but a father's eyes. I think there is an inbuilt mechanism in the brain which switches off certain responses where you own children are concerned, and it's why we are so horrified by incest and child abuse - it just goes against everything the human brain is programmed to do. The Julia Somerville case seemed more amusing, in a WTF? kind of way, than disturbing. Little did we know. When my girls were small, I had a lot of contact with children of a similar age, and I was known to be 'good with kids' - I could make them laugh, was happy to wipe their noses and pick them up when they fell down, I was even trusted to babysit on occasions. I trusted all the other kids' fathers and mothers implicitly - there was no reason not to. And I would not hestitate to approach and care for a child that I didn't know, if they were in any kind of distress or danger.
Of course, I haven't had that level of contact with young children since then, and probably won't now until mine start producing their own. So I don't often speak to young children these days. But then, the whole atmosphere is different. There is suspicion everywhere - single males, dads, uncles, grandads, and even fat middle-aged women, after a couple of high-profile cases - everyone is seen as a potential child abuser. If you want a job which might involve contact with children or 'vulnerable adults', then you will have to have a CRB check. The implication is: we assume you're only after this job so you can satisfy your unspeakable perversion - unless, of course, you can prove otherwise.
You can't be too careful ... And if it saves one child ...
But it has poisoned the relationship between adults and children, and between adults and other adults. We now routinely consider child abuse as a possibility whenever we contemplate adults and children together. Is this a good thing? In a way, yes. If we are more aware that this kind of thing can happen, we can take steps to prevent it. But we have gone much further than that. We have instilled an atmosphere of mistrust, which means that normal relationships between adults and children, whether family members or strangers, are viewed as potentially dangerous and abusive. When I was a boy, I was told not to take sweets from strangers (because some strangers might want to hurt you, was the reason). But I was not taught to distrust the whole of humanity. In fact, I was told, at a very young age, that if I were ever in trouble to find the nearest adult, who would look after me. I told my girls the same, and I see no reason to think that is any less true today than 20 years ago. But now the majority of children - far more than the number at risk of real abuse - now believe that all adults are suspect.
If I were walking through town and I saw a lone child, crying and obviously lost, what would I do? I would be bloody cautious, that's for sure. But I wouldn't let this atmosphere of prurient suspicion stop me from doing what any parent - any human being - would do, and that is step in and help. I would find it easier to do so if the child were a boy, for obvious reasons (I'm not gay and never have been, so it would be hard to prove malicious intent). But either boy or girl - if they were in distress, I could not pass by.
I reckon I would ask the nearest female adult to come with me, and then approach the child that way. But isn't it sad that we have to think like this?
I'm thinking aloud, really. Your thoughts are welcome.