An uncomfortable truth about protecting children.

In a week where child protection issues have been in the news, here’s a uncomfortable admission. If I was walking through a shopping centre, and saw a distressed child, obviously lost, I would do nothing. I’d shuffle past, maybe glance back to see if someone helped the child, and go on about my business, feeling shitty and ashamed for the rest of the day.

Disgraceful, you say? Look at it from my point of view. I’m a 38 year old overweight bearded man who lives alone. Now, supposing I spoke to the child, and, if not seeing a security guard in my immediate vicinity, did the next logical thing and took the child to the centre’s information desk, where a public announcement could be made. Very sensible thing to do, right? You would think so, except that supposing on my way I encounter the rightly irate and terrified mother frantically searching for her child.

What will be her response be? It might be gratitude, or relief. Or it might be suspicion or even a belief that the reason that she could not find her child in the first place was because a 38 year old overweight bearded man (ever notice how in photos, child abductors never look like Brad Pitt?) had taken the child. I could end up being questioned by police, who will of course find that I have done nothing wrong, except that I am now a person of interest who was questioned by police with regard to a child missing in a shopping centre. My name will be noted somewhere, “just in case”. If a child ever goes missing in the area I live in, my name pops up as someone perhaps worth talking to. See how this goes?

In the society we have created, I’m sorry, but I can’t take the risk, and I’m not alone. I even know of married men with children who would be weary of speaking to a stranger’s child unaccompanied. I have two younger sisters, both under eight. If they got lost in a shopping centre, of course I’d hope that someone would give a damn. But as long as we have a society where our media perpetuate the idea that there are far more strangers out there trying to harm your children than there are strangers who might intervene if one of your children is in distress, this is the way it is going to be. I have to walk on. I just can’t take the risk. 

3 thoughts on “An uncomfortable truth about protecting children.

  1. Spot on Jason. This is exactly what people mean when they talk about soft information – every suspicion, every accusation.

  2. I always admired the advice given by (I think) Dan Ariely, which was to teach children not to talk to strangers who approach them, but if they get lost or need help, to pick an adult and ask for help.
    Strangers who’ll talk to distressed children are a self-selecting group and the incidence of predators in that group would be higher because of that, whereas the odds of randomly picking someone who’d hurt a child are miniscule.

  3. I think this is true of many men I know. While I’m younger than you, and don’t have a beard, as a gay man I would feel much the same. One potential option is to stand with the child and ask a passing woman to help.

    Of course, the sad reality is that while scandals and shocking incidents have labelled strangers and clergy as the ones to be afraid of, most children who are abused are abused by people known to them, male relatives in particular. While the advice of ‘never talk to strangers’ might make parents feel better, it is of limited use in preventing abuse. While I hesitate to make light of this subject, ‘Never talk to uncle Jimmy’ might be more accurate and sensible advice!

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