What if someone took you?

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.


Filed under Motherhood and Parenting

7 responses to “What if someone took you?

  1. Fantastic post, Spilt Milk.

  2. T.A.

    So true. So very very, spot on, true.

  3. In the absence of an ideal world, we need something like inoculation against fear. There’s plenty of evidence that our inbuilt danger detectors need recalibrating, fearfully overreacting to possibilities that are less likely to happen than others that we simply ignore. The irony is that our world is often more like the ideal than we treat it.

  4. Graham

    Great post. A curious thing happened to me the other day, I was at a store, with C in a stroller and I was talking on my phone. A young man with a juggling ball came up to Cameron and gave it to him, Cameron threw the ball, and the man tossed it back. They played ball for a good 5 minutes while I finished my conversation. I admit that my first reaction was concern about this stranger, but then I realised, that I was right there, Cameron was having fun, and the man was merely being kind. There really was no problem at all. The man left before I finished my call, and I never exchanged a word with him. I have to ask the question. Would this young man have had the courage to come up and entertain my son if I had been a mother and not a father?

  5. I once saw a girl (may 10 or 11) fall off a swing n hurt herself, not badly but enough to limp home. I was there with my toddler. Automatically i checked she was ok n asked if she had far to get home, n only afterwards realised why she had been giving me filthy looks – i was a stranger (despite being a mum with a small child) and she was alone (alone-ish – on a very public road) and ‘vulnerable’.

    I still wouldn’t hesitate to interfere if i saw bullying or similar, but it made me more inhibited about offering help to children.

    As for my own level of free-rangeness, it would have been higher if i’d followed my instincts (even though i went through my own over-protective phase) but i found myself frowned on by other mums if i wasn’t *very* protective. Some were reluctant to let their children visit (without them) because i wasn’t careful enough. I got tutted at more than once for being happy to leave a child in the car – while i just popped into the house for a coat or something that took 5 seconds! :0(

    The biggest pity is that children are growing up with the feeling/belief that the whole world is out to get them. I’ve taught my sons about stranger-danger, but at the same time to be polite to strangers. 99.99999% of people (practically ‘everyone’) they meet will be friendly n honest. Yet i’ve met children who were afraid to say hello to me because i was a stranger – even when they were with their parents. :0(

    (Most of this is in the past tense because my youngest is nine, we are now in a very quiet village with hardly any traffic and neighbours we know well, and i don’t mix with those anxious mums any more cos disability keeps me from the school run n playground conversation.)

    I wonder how society will view all this in 20 years. My son’s yeargroup were badly hit by Madeleine McCann’s disappearance (which was when they were all 6 and 7). Each family explained it differently, i suppose, but all the children were rattled. Wouldn’t be surprised if the generation made up of their offspring is even more swaddled. Or maybe by then the backlash will be cutting in – like, for instance, the recognition nowadays that über-hygiene makes allergies worse, not better.

    Didn’t think this comment would end up so long!

  6. I’m not sure, Graham – maybe. I know what you mean by that knee-jerk suspicion though. Maybe that’s okay to feel, so long as logic kicks in as well.
    Mand, interesting what you say about the McCann case. Those stories are so terrifying because they are apparently random. We all know that any child could be a target and there is no warning. But sometimes I wonder if the extensive media hype about those cases is helpful at all. In reality there is little parents can do to protect against that particular threat. And the fact is that most abusers are known to the child and most are relatives. That’s where the need for awareness lies.

  7. You’re right, i agree entirely.

    Hermf… ‘okay to feel, so long as logic kicks in as well’ – many things fit this definition, but in many people the logic never does kick in. And with parenting it’s even less likely to. I know i myself am far less rational and/or reasonable in my judgments when it comes to my kids than in any other sphere (eg i find it really hard to admire anyone who doesn’t take to my children!).

    And this is me, whom i trust to be striving to stay rational in all situations and most of all in those that matter. Someone who doesn’t normally think about it is even less likely to scrutinise whether their actions make sense when they’re frightened about their children’s well-being. (And that’s natural, and normal, and not blameworthy.)

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