A few months ago, Bean was in the suddenly-bolt-and-disappear stage: new-found speed and confidence meant that it wasn’t unusual for her to leave my side far more quickly than I could catch her. One day we were in the local chicken shop waiting for our order when she just up and ran out of the store and legged it down the footpath. Coming in the other direction was a man – I would guess he was about sixty – who very helpfully put out his arms as if to catch her as she hurtled towards him, which of course made her stop in her tracks to take a better look at this man-sized obstacle. Within seconds I was able to scoop her up, and ensure that she didn’t run out into the carpark. I looked up to express my gratitude to the man, who immediately started to apologise. ‘I wouldn’t have picked her up,’ he hurriedly assured me, ‘I just thought I might slow her down!’ and then then walked off so abruptly that I could barely tell him thank you.
It made me sad: I had assumed he was simply trying to help, and when you have a toddler sprinting right next to a busy carpark, that kind of help can be a matter of life and death. I felt sorry for this man who seemed so kind, that he would fear judgement and reprisals for showing interest in the welfare of a little girl.
He’s not the only one. My father in law, a man in his sixties, has a ten year old daughter. On a family holiday last summer, his daughter had entered a sand-castle competition and we were all down at the beach enjoying the afternoon. I asked my father in law if he had managed to take any good photos – he’s never far from his camera – and he admitted that he hadn’t taken anything. ‘There are too many other kids here in their bathers,’ he explained ‘if people see an old man like me taking photos, they’ll get upset.’ He’s been questioned before about his ‘interest’ in his own daughter by people who assumed he was someone other than her parent so, unfortunately, his fear of censure wasn’t unfounded.
I completely understand the impulse parents have to protect their children from any potential threat, even an unlikely one. No one is under any obligation to accept help from a stranger, or to allow strangers to talk to our touch their children. But fearing the father at the beach or the man at the shops for no reason other than the fact that they are men? These are not protective, helpful behaviours (unless other sound reasons, even if they are mainly instinctual, give cause for suspicion or alarm). We need to keep our children safe but knee-jerk fear and prejudice does not equal exercising judgement.
I have no doubt that my husband would stop to assist a child in need, and I would hate to think how he would feel if his motives were called into question. But this is not just about lamenting the hurt feelings of decent men – after all, decent people don’t wish to contribute to anxiety or distress and hence many men have become accustomed to keeping their distance from other people’s children. These two stories posted on Free Range Kids both attest to this.
The real losers, when we succumb to ‘peodophile panic’, are not only men in the community, but our children. When my daughter is lost in a shopping centre, or injured at the playground, or in need of the physical reassurance that a hug from an adult can bring whilst away from my care (at school, perhaps), I want the decent people around her to step in. I want someone, anyone kind, whatever their age or gender, to come to her aid. When I was a child my parents could count on that happening: adults were accustomed to watching out for other children, especially in the rural area where I lived. Can I count on it? Perhaps, sometimes, I hope. But the reality is that the number of benign adults willing to interact with children on any level is reducing, and not only because of changing attitudes to children and families but also due to fear of being labelled a ‘pervert’ of some kind. And when kind and trustworthy adults are less likely to intervene? Less likely to consider watching out for all children to be part of their role as a citizen within a community? That leaves children with only their own parents and designated carers – and even perhaps adults who are not so benign – to interact with. It leaves them with fewer meaningful exchanges with people outside of their immediate family and, importantly, it leaves them with less protection. It also potentially leaves parents more isolated, with less help (and, as Arwyn argues so strongly here, we need help!)
If you’re one of the vast majority of human beings who have only good intent towards children and you see my Little Bean heading towards danger and you want to reach out to her to keep her safe? Please, be my guest. She and I will both be grateful.