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Heart breaking

Posted on: April 4, 2011

I read this story over at Mamamia, which is Mia Freedman’s site, and another favourite of mine. Again, I’m slightly behind the times, but last Wednesday night, Kieran, a six-year-old boy from Victoria, wandered away from home and ended up being killed while walking along a railway track. Several witnesses saw Kieran alone that night, but not one approached him or called the police.

This story, and others like it, deeply affect me. I find it hard to believe that this tragedy could have been allowed to happen. Why doesn’t our society get its act together and start taking responsibility for its citizens, young and old? It’s called the bystander problem – the more people witness an emergency taking place, the less likely each individual is to act, because each person thinks someone else will do it/should do it/has done it already.

But what’s the harm in offering to help someone in distress anyway, even if you’re sure it’s already been done? I’m sure the police would have preferred to have been inundated by calls that night, rather than having to inform poor Kieran’s parents that their child was dead.

I do appreciate that it is sometimes awkward. Whilst watching my children playing at a park, I noticed a small girl who seemed to need help getting down from the equipment. I looked around and couldn’t see her parents close by, so I approached the girl. She didn’t want me to help her but still seemed distressed, so I asked where her parents were, and I went and got them for her. They didn’t seem to appreciate my interference – I got a few odd looks and grunts, even – but I saw an upset child, and I acted. No harm done.

Another time, before I was a parent, I was standing in a crowd waiting for a train at an underground station (in Paris!), when the man next to me keeled over and fainted. Boom, straight to the floor. It was such a shock, I actually thought he’d been shot or something (although there was no gunshot-like noise to account for this), but straight away I rushed forward to see if he was okay. I wasn’t all that good with First Aid back then, but luckily, some others in the crowd also came forward to help, and they seemed to know what they were doing, so I backed off. They also spoke French, so they were in a better position to talk to the man when he came around, too. The man stood up and got on the train when it came a few minutes later, and appeared dazed but fine. Everyone kept a close eye on him for the trip! (In a protective way, I think). It was a scary experience, and not one in which I felt I had much to offer, but you can only do your best in any situation, until better help comes along.

I suppose one of the reasons this story affects me so much is that, recently, my own son tried to escape our house. We knew he wanted to go out, but it didn’t occur to us that he might try some other exit, other than the front door, which we had locked and were keeping an eye on. It is worrying to think that, had Tiernan not become stuck on his window ledge, six feet above the ground, then he may well have taken himself for a walk, and we wouldn’t have known about it for at least ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps; however long it took us to become suspicious that there was no sound coming from his bedroom. Try as we might, parents just don’t always know what their kids are up to every minute of the day, and it would be nice to know that our neighbours, and fellow community members, were looking out for us, too.

I think it comes down to the way we raise our children in this society. I’ve said it before – nuclear families, or discrete family units, just aren’t the best way. If we felt a shared responsibility for all children, as a whole, then maybe there would be less pressure on individual parents to provide absolutely everything under the Sun for their children, and maybe there would be less parent-blaming when things inevitably go wrong. If we were a more open and cohesive society, maybe there would be fewer cases of child neglect and abuse, and fewer cases of post-natal depression. Because there would be someone to talk honestly with when things get hard. Someone to step in and take over when a parent is at their wit’s end. And a child walking the streets alone wouldn’t be someone else’s problem, it would be our problem.

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