If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

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.


  1. It cuts both ways. The fact is that 50 years ago and forever before that incest and sexual exploitation of children by familes and other adults charged with the care of children was common. Families knew and kept it in the family. The other adults closed ranks. Child victims had nobody to turn to. They didn't even know that they were victims - what happened was often presented to them as part of 'growing up'. What those subjected to the sexual attentions of adults learned for sure is that adult 'warmth' is not to be trusted - it can come with a price - the 'friendly' adult might expect something from you in return.

    Adult-child relationships have been poisoned, by comparison with how they used to be, by the recognition of just how widespread is foul behaviour on the part of some adults and just how successful such adults were in the past at getting away with it.

    Whose fault is that?

  2. Sadly, so very true.

    I work in the Mechanical Services industry, and was surveying the Sports Hall of a local Leisure complex. The children were doing their gymnastics. I needed details of the internal roof structure.

    No sooner had I taken out my camera to take shots of the ceiling than a manager rushed over & told me to stop. I explained I was there WITH a member of the local authority, & the objective was to try to save some of his building fabric.

    Well what a palava; I had to provide my name, address, documentary proof of identity, etc, etc.

    I was tempted to walk out, and if his roof fell down, well, that's his lookout.

  3. @Jim - if child abuse was so hidden in the past, how can we possibly know how widespread (or rare) it was? My own experience of it is zero - but that's only one person's experience. For other kids, it could have been all of them, or none; I wouldn't have known either way. All we can go on is our own gut feeling, and mine is that it is a bit like the murder rate - pretty much the same since Victorian times, but with widespread news media we hear about it a lot more now. I could be completely wrong on that - I just don't know. If it's been endemic through the ages and it's now declining because of the recent openness, then I would have to say that's a good thing, but I haven't seen any evidence to confirm or deny that.

    @JoeP - Where I used to work, we had a large leisure pool, and we took the decision to forbid photography completely in the pool area. I was amazed at how many parents and grandparents would take out a camera, be 'advised' by a lifeguard that it was not permitted, and obediently put it away. I was expecting much more resistance to the idea, but obviously the paedo message is well and truly bedded in. "Yes, of course, silly of me ..." and a blush, as if they had been caught doing something nasty, instead of wanting a photo of their kids having fun.

  4. Richard, what we know now about children in the care of the Catholic church is statistically unlikely to be have confined to the Catholic church. That, I suggest, is how we know how prevalent it once was.

  5. Jim - that's weak logic, with respect. The Catholic Church is an institution founded on a single interpretation of Jesus's message by a known woman-hater and probable homosexual, which has institutionalised the denigration of women throughout its history, and which teaches that sexual self-denial is superior to living a normal life, as well as promoting a culture of blind obedience and secrecy in which all these things could take place. There is no way that this could be considered typical of normal family life in any century, and any conclusions drawn from the incidence of child abuse in the Catholic Church must necessarily be highly speculative.

    In other words: just because the priest might have been buggering half the choir doesn't mean that every dad in the village was doing the same.

    No, sorry, I don't buy it.

  6. The answer to the original question is "yes".

    Sadly, though, it would be with a degree of caution to ensure no action I took could be open to misinterpretation. By anyone.

    I suppose I should consider myself fortunate, as a non-parent, that I don't actually have much contact with youngsters because most of the time it simply isn't that comfortable. Tragically so: I like kids and they usually seem to like me. Sharing their voyage of discovery into the big, wide world ought to a pleasure for both adult and child. But with the exception of my young nephew, it is impossible to simply behave naturally with them: every word, gesture and touch has to be considered and managed to satisfy any observer that it is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, innocent of bad intent. Which, these days, seems to include not just the potential for sexual abuse, but the causing of any other offence - real or imaginary - or any attempt to introduce control or discipline into the equation. It becomes an artificial relationship, constrained on both sides by fear of possibilities. If it wasn't so toxic, it would be laughable to think that we could learn a good deal about generational interaction by looking at, say, meerkats - who seem to have a far more civilised and clearer grasp of common good than we do.

    As for the incidence and demographic of abuse: well, by its' very nature, it's pretty difficult to draw an informed opinion. I don't think an authoritarian institution with a large reservoir of both captive audience and heavily sexually repressed operators, like the Catholic Church, can represent much other than itself. It seems quite likely, given the essentially unchanging nature of it, that the levels of abuse have remained constant throughout modern times.

    In the wider society, though, as far as I'm aware, there is no evidence to suggest that the proportion of genuine psychosexual aberrants has massively increased, or that such individuals have become more randomly predatory. Most serious cases of abuse, particularly of the young and very young, remain primarily within the family unit or a trusted institution. Given modern laissez-faire attitudes to permanent relationships in some sections of the population, that, presumably, increases the risk of exposure for some children and increases the level and scope of opportunity for some adults. It doesn't necessarily make a child in the street any more vulnerable, however.*

    The truth is that some people do terrible things to small children: that is both undeniable and heartbreaking. It is also so far removed from acceptable human behaviour or instinct as to be genuinely monstrous, inspiring a revulsion almost beyond limit. Alone among crimes, it is never, under any circumstances, viewed as excusable or even understandable. Under those circumstances, it seems insane to work from a premise that everyone is potentially capable of such monstrousness. Patently, most people are not. A healthy society would reflect that and seek to mitigate against the monsters, rather than seek for them in every nuance of ordinary human behaviour.

    A healthy society would have trust as the default.

    * Of course, that situation changes radically post-puberty. The child is technically an adult from that point, and not only no longer inspires the same nurture imperatives, but actually moves into a new reproductive paradigm. Whatever behaviours are exhibited from this point on are generally governed by moral and societal factors, often running counter to pure biological drives. That is where hazard from strangers becomes meaningful and needs serious understanding. But it's almost certainly a separate topic to explore that.

  7. I'd agree with your last point - once puberty is passed, the rules are man's, not nature's. Which is, presumably, why the age of consent varies so widely across the world, but is never (I think) less than 12.

  8. In my youth, I think I was about 11/12 my parents let me go and work for a guy who owned a cleaning business, saddly he abused me but at the time as a youth although I did not really want to go along with it I just thought I wanted to enjoy the sexual expierience. It has remained with me all my years as a bad memory and in fact has sometimes confused my own feelings of my own sexuality. I have never voiced this publicly and never thought I would but this subject really grates with me. I now teach children (and adults) to swim as a hobby/job I really enjoy but for the fact that if I even go near a child to help I have to allmost shout out what I am doing so that any parent/other adult near by knows my full intensions. Further as an instructor I usually demonstrate by entering the water and showing the children what I want then to do and this is frowned upon as wll by some! I also have to wear shorts (Over my trunks) and t-shirt so youngsters cannot see my body? It's just getting harder to be/act normal without feeling guilty where chi;ldren are concearned. A couple of lessons ago I had to jump in and swim to the otherside of the pool to get to a child who was strugeling and upon reaching said child scooped him up and held him to console him, as I did so I felt imeadiatly a sense of being watched and straight away held myself up for the stupid person should not have done that award. I am not sure I should have just let the youngster drown or just be put off swimming forever but what I had done seemed very natural to me.

  9. I think you have demonstrated how things have gone a bit too far. In a public pool, with people around, there can be no reason not to act completely normally, and rescuing someone in difficulty is a pretty normal thing to do. Where the problems start is when adults and children are alone and unseen, and I would say that sensible precautions here are justified. When I was a teacher, I was advised never to speak to a child alone in a classroom - always make sure the door was open. That was enough, and I thought it was a reasonable rule of thumb. I don't think the current climate of universal suspicion helps anyone, least of all the children. I'm sorry to hear of your earlier experiences, and hope that you can deal with them in your own way. But I am clear in my own mind that rescuing a swimmer in difficulty is not something to be ashamed of.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...