IF EVER I were screaming at my children outside my own home, I hope my neighbours would intervene, but not by contacting the authorities.
Living in a close-knit street as I do, I imagine they might stand beside me making sympathetic noises until my frustration had subsided and I gained enough distance to deal with whatever conflict had arisen in a more constructive manner. If things had really spiralled out of control, perhaps they would steer me inside and make me a cup of tea, while offering up potential strategies. It is always easier to see how bad behaviour should be dealt with if you are viewing it from outside, which is why watching Supernanny imbues the viewer with a sense of superiority. And often all it takes to defuse a parent/child showdown is a little show of support.
Unfortunately, the neighbours of a 33-year-old Crieff woman who was driven to the end of her tether by her son’s epic tantrum last July took a different approach. When they heard the mother-of-three swearing at her 11-year-old, who had run out of the house and locked himself in his gran’s car after his mobile phone was confiscated, they didn’t commiserate with her, they phoned the police.
Maybe they didn’t know the woman well. Maybe they were afraid of how she would react if they put their hand gently on her arm and said: “Is there anything we can do?” But the upshot of their intervention was that instead of being helped to calm down, the woman – who had no previous convictions or history of trouble – was forced to appear before Perth Sheriff Court last week charged with breach of the peace.
I find this outcome strange on several levels. The first is that I have heard parents swearing at their children fairly regularly, not in the heat of the moment, but in ordinary conversation, and unpleasant though it is, I’m not aware of anyone being taken to court before. And I can’t imagine the use of bad language being a priority for police or social workers who are struggling to deal with cases of life-threatening neglect and abuse.
But I’m also unclear what, other than cutting out the profanities, the woman was supposed to do in the circumstances. Leaving a tantruming child alone until they calm down may be the best course of action generally, but I’m not sure how comfortable I would have felt walking away from an 11-year-old in a situation where doing so could result in harm to themselves or others (if they were to take the handbrake off, for example). Also, if she hadn’t remonstrated with him wouldn’t she have been letting him off the hook?
Admittedly, the woman in question was admonished, but the whole affair underlines a degree of public confusion over what we as individuals ought to be doing to protect children. One one level, it’s no wonder people sometimes overreact, given the succession of high-profile child abuse cases that have dominated headlines. Every time a child like Baby P or Daniel Pelka dies, we ask not only, “where were the doctors or the social workers?” but also “where were the community?” If neighbours noticed hands or voices raised in anger once, twice, a dozen times, why didn’t they act?
Charities such as Children 1st promote the message that it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure society’s most vulnerable are kept safe and well – and rightly so. Where there is clear and consistent evidence of abuse – children left alone in the house or regularly sporting significant bruises – then it is every individual’s duty to draw it to the attention of the relevant authorities.
But I’m not convinced that duty extends to vetting our neighbours’ parenting skills and contacting the authorities about every fraught exchange, slanging match or loss of temper. Apart from the fact that doing so would mean social services departments drowning in reports they have no time to investigate, with the risk that the most serious cases would fall through the net, it also creates a climate of fear which makes it far less likely someone who is struggling to cope will feel able to ask for help.
I have heard the phrase “constant vigilance” being used in connection with community prevention of child abuse, but I prefer the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”, because it seems to shift the emphasis from judging people to supporting them. If we want to prioritise the well-being of children, then we should first of all acknowledge that, wonderful though they are, raising them can sometimes be a soul-sapping experience, particularly if you are on your own or short of cash or if you are being subjected to a relentless onslaught of cheek. Surely the best way to ensure no-one is driven to breaking point is for communities to band together; for all of us to be sensitive to those times when our neighbours are under pressure and offer to give them a break, secure in the knowledge the same help will be extended to us if we require it.
Of course, not all families want to be reached out to. There are those in the grip of alcohol or drugs or mental health problems who will rebuff all offers and there will be times when passing our concerns on is the only responsible option. But most parents who lose their temper with their children hate themselves for doing so; they want to find alternative ways to discipline. Taking them to court won’t do anything to repair their relationship with their child. It merely teaches them that, faced with the worst their child can throw at them, they can expect no help from anyone. «