When every parent’s worst nightmare comes true, how should we respond?

memorial candleThe terrible events that have been unfolding in Machynlleth force those of us who call for a more balanced approach to risk in childhood to take stock. How can we reconcile our views with the searing reality of such an apparently senseless act?

To quote statistics – as criminologist David Wilson has done in the Guardian, or as Channel Four has done on the FactCheck pages on its website – feels inadequate, if well-intentioned. However low the numbers, while we are still in the midst of tragedy, we hear them like whispers in a storm. And yet it seems equally wrong to simply allow our emotional responses to so overwhelm us that reason has no purchase.

In a piece in Monday’s Telegraph, journalist and science commentator Tom Chivers argues that psychology can come to our aid. His diagnosis is that our answers to questions like “how likely is it that this will happen again?” are skewed by the impact of events that – precisely because they are so rare – we recall in all-too-vivid detail. His cure is that we need to teach parents to be more aware of their biases, and to respond more rationally.

This insight may be helpful to those who are ready to take a more dispassionate stance. But it offers no way forward for those who are struggling even to gain a sense of equilibrium. If we are to come to terms with raw tragedy, we need to understand just why we can feel so helpless in the face of it. We need to start with the question that so often leaves us floundering: “how would you feel if it were your child?”

We need to look that question in the eye: to feel both its force and its flaws. That question is understandable as a plea for sympathy. But as a way of deciding what is best for children, it is deeply unhelpful.

I am not saying that we should ignore our emotions. But gaining a perspective on tragedy means moving on from the emotions that arise in its immediate aftermath. It means creating some distance from the circumstances of those who are still overwhelmed by loss. It means coming to terms with this simple reality. We live in a world that, while arguably safer for children than at any time in history [pdf link], is also a place where sometimes, monstrous things happen.

The plea to adopt the point of view of those who have suffered devastating loss cannot help but lead to excessively risk averse responses to tragedy. Such a plea is quite different from an appeal for sympathy. It is a request that we adopt the inevitably revised value system of the victim. And it is a request that, however understandable, we need to resist. The truth is, if we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.

Note: if you have read my book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, or heard me talk on risk, you may recognise that last paragraph, which closely follows a passage from that book. If there is one message from No Fear that I hope people will read, remember and reflect on, it is this one.

21 responses to “When every parent’s worst nightmare comes true, how should we respond?

  1. I have thought hard about this one and didn’t feel comfortable to put it into a blog post. As a parent of a 5 year old who every day wants to play out after school, this case has touched me more than any other. I do feel less able to say yes to my child’s request. I know I should say yes, I know intellectually all the benefits, how we need more trust and good neighbourhood relations which make unsupervised play possible again. I know I played like this at that age and how I enjoyed that independence and adventure of it. And still, I can’t stop thinking what if. For now, I can’t let her play out. She disappears from my sight often enough (in the woods which she knows better than me, in the park), I feel I have to reign her in a little bit. I know you’re right, fear is in the way of so much. But I have to admit, I can’t yet let go of it.

  2. I too decided against blogging on this topic even though I thought it was important to do so. Well done for having the courage to do it, Tim. And nicely put.

    This is one of those cases that might well attrach a knee-jerk reaction and for that reason alone I thinks its important to add an element of reason. But more important I think we need to address this issue because there have been questions levied against the parents of this child on why they ‘allowed’ her out to play unsupervised. That’s unfair on them.

  3. Cartside, Marc – thanks for the comments. I must confess I have not followed the media coverage too closely, partly because I find it too painful. But in what I have read, I have not seen any criticism of the parents. Marc – where have you seen this? If it’s in comments below the line, that’s one thing (we know all too well how some people overreact or rush to judgement, especially when they can remain anonymous). I’d be interested to know if any journalists or commentators have taken this view. If I’m right, perhaps this shows that the climate is changing (I am sure there was some criticism directed at the McCanns from some quarters of the press).

  4. Thanks for this Tim…thoughtful response to a very difficult question. Hope your trip to Australia has been successful. Glad to have met you at the Natural Childhood Summit. Best, Craig Taylor

  5. Ashley Rogers - Play England

    Well done Tim. You may have seen that I posted the C4 stats on my facebook page and shared some of my thoughts on there with Arthur Battram. I think its incredibly important that we discuss this head on, and in a carefully and thoughtfully worded manner like you have done here. For me, it is all about the fight between being rational and emotionally reactive. Apart from my sadness at the obvious tragedy of poor April to her family, friends and community, my sadness also spreads to the thousands of children whose opportunities for free, unsupervised play near their homes will be lost or diminished. If the mainstream press are pointing fingers at families about letting their kids play out, I think its crucial for people like us to be speaking out in such a way as you have done in this post.

  6. I can understand why you’ve felt moved to post this piece Tim, but I honestly think that the instinct to desist is the right one here. There is nothing useful to say about this case until the outcome of the trial that is now pending. Sure, the whole question of children’s freedom to play outside and the risks involved are now under the media’s voracious gaze, but we don’t yet know what happened other than that a little girl went missing and is presumed dead. Let’s not add to the cacophony of unasked for and premature opinions about what is a singular and highly personal tragedy, still being played out (no pun intended).

  7. Thankyou Tim for making the decision to write this piece. I had been interested to hear your thoughts. As a parent of a 4 yr old I just can’t bring myself to take the chance, as the consequences are so possibly severe. I do think it’s important though for people like yourself to make us think and evaluate the risk/benefit.

  8. I too failed to have the courage to blog about this myself. I agree with Ashley’s comment that sadness also spreads to the many children whose freedom will be curbed – indeed, a couple of the comments here already illustrate this. I was really struck by the amount of media coverage of this story. They really do seem to be driving home the message – don’t ever let your kids out of your sight – and this really isn’t healthy.

  9. Craig, Ashley, Adrian, Julie, Jo – thanks for the comments. As I said to Marc, I would be interested to see articles that scaremonger, or criticise the family, and have asked for these here, and on my facebook page. I have yet to see any. I am beginning to wonder if some are constructing a narrative about the media that, this time, does not quite fit the facts. However, I am prepared to be proved wrong on this.
    When to comment? Such a difficult question, and one that I faced in its sharpest form almost a year ago, when I held back. Why did I comment this time, and why now? I feel that my point – which is really about need to take an emotionally literate and reasoned response to an emotionally potent situation – is best made when we are still close enough to those emotions to appreciate the challenge. I also partly took my cue from the fact that others were exploring similar questions – and from the supportive comments that followed (see the Telegraph piece). Yes, it’s a singular tragedy – but its effects may well spread far beyond the family and community directly affected, as Ashley notes well.

    • Tim – perhaps my comment was misleading. I haven’t seen any scaremongering comments or criticisms either (although, like you, I haven’t really been looking). It’s just the sheer volume of the coverage that has struck me, and this in itself is what I feel sends a message that it’s unsafe to let our kids out of our sight – whether intentionally or not, I think this is the result of how much time the media give to these stories.

      • Jo – that’s a good point – though it’s hard to know what to do about it. I guess it’s worth pointing out to people that they always have a choice not to read/watch.

  10. The problem is that in the long run it’s unsafe in some ways to not let our kids out of our sight.

    As parents my wife and I see a significant part of our job as nurturing our children so that, come the day, they can fly by themselves if they either want or need to. If we clip their wings too much so they’re “safe” they may never be able to.

    While it is also obviously part of our job to safeguard our children from more immediate threats, it is seeing that long-term goal and working towards its eventual success that gives a perspective which helps against more reactionary thinking. If we react excessively to overdo the immediate threat side of things we set ourselves up for long term failure, and children who will have enormous trouble becoming successful, independent, functioning and happy adults.

    • Peter – of course I agree. Indeed I’m toying with the idea of a post that fleshes out your point. But like Tom Chivers’ argument, it only really gains purchase if people are already open to rational reflection.

      • I think in a case like this risk/benefit can be instructive if done the other way around, because it’s important to see that there’s no such thing as a zero-risk option. By stopping children from going out alone we are making an intervention that is liable to risk/benefit too…

        The risk is that by over-protection from carers the child will not mature in its ability to manage risk independently at precisely the point in its development when it would naturally be happening.
        The benefit is that a minuscule chance of total catastrophe becomes a bit smaller than it already is.

        Yes there is a benefit, but the risk outweighs the benefit from where I’m looking. If my children cannot sensibly manage risk independently in the future they will repeatedly be put in more danger than if they can. There is, I think, a big enough chance of that happening combined with it being a serious enough consequence that I really don’t want to go there.

        … In the meantime I am waiting to see if my children’s first totally unescorted bike ride home has been plain sailing or disaster. I’ll know in about 20 minutes. I’m naturally worried about it. I’d also be worried about their long term future if I always made a point of escorting them everywhere because it’s safer: anything I do, or don’t do, is some sort of intervention with risks and benefits.

  11. Julie – thanks for the comment, and looking forward to seeing you on my return visit. The case you mention was discussed on my facebook page. Gill McAuliffe from Bold Park Community School WA made a strong case – as a mother with daughters a similar age to Gillian Meagher – that these incredibly rare events should not end up with our children, in her words, living their lives in fear.
    Peter, I agree that taking a longer-term perspective – across a child’s life – makes the case for protection so much weaker. One other point: I’d like an update please! (And I recognise the situation only too well.)

    • I’d set 3:30 as the “I’ll go out and trace their route from this end”, they both turned up without a care at 3:15. Well, when I say without a care I mean about the cycling, they were having a good old moan about the ref at this week’s football camp…

      • Good stuff. When our daughter walked home from school for the first time, she was about 10 mins later than we expected – she’d been having fun with her friends, so the trip took longer than with us. Apparently, this pattern has been confirmed by research using GPS trackers!

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  14. I am totally agree with Ashley’s comment that sadness also spreads to the many children whose freedom will be curbed.

  15. Pingback: Covid-19 and children: what does the science tell us, and what does this mean as the lockdown is eased? | Rethinking Childhood

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