This afternoon The Bean and I had a lovely time playing in the sunshine in an outer suburban playground with fencing all around. It was a weekday afternoon; only a few parents (mostly mothers) and their toddlers/babies were in attendance.
A little girl – about 2.5 years old – came over to sit on the swing next to us. She was walking about six metres ahead of her mother – who was none too pleased about this state of affairs, as evidenced by the shrill admonishments that followed:
Zoe! Don’t run off! Why were you running ahead of me? You know you shouldn’t do that, don’t you? It’s very naughty, isn’t it? Yes. Very naughty. Don’t do it again. You must stay with mummy. You understand? You must stay with mummy!
What if someone took you?!
Now it would be very easy for me to be smug about this. Hell, my parenting is pretty Free Range compared with hers. And there was absolutely no reason for this mother to imagine that any of the other parents enjoying a sunny afternoon at this park were actually child predators with a big white van waiting around the corner. I feel sorry for that kid, and the fearful person she may grow into.
But I’m not posting this to anonymously shame an anonymous woman I saw at the park. She could well be suffering from an anxiety disorder or post natal depression or have been a victim of child abuse or have an estranged spouse who has threatened to take her child — there could be any number of scenarios I’ve not been privy to that would make her behaviour seem less bizarre.
There is a tension that parents face every day, between wanting to keep our children perfectly safe and allowing them to learn about the world for themselves. I remember when Bean was a few days old, just sitting and crying while I looked at her face as she screamed in hunger and frustration at my breast. I wanted to put her back in my womb where she had been nourished and protected. Always warm, always embraced.
And how do we - those of us who have faced hardships like molestation or neglect or bullying or abuse - learn to trust others to keep our children safer than we ourselves were? How do we do this without causing harm ourselves through our ‘helicopter parenting’?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that most parents could do with a little more kindness and understanding. We live in a world where some people tsk and frown at parents who put their toddler in a harness to keep hir close by in a crowd, and an equal number of people rant and complain at parents who fail to keep a toddler completely quiet in a cafe. In an ideal world we’d all find a happy medium between appropriate supervision and allowing children to develop their own resilience through learning natural consequences, and we’d be supported in that by a child-tolerant society.
But then, in an ideal world, child abduction wouldn’t merely be rare, it would be non existent. In an ideal world our worst fears would be far, far less frightening. And in an ideal world all parents would take their responsibility to protect their children seriously, and would love them.
On that score at least, the woman at the park is doing okay. We have that much in common.