The bus was almost full, but I managed to find a pair of seats near the front. I settled into the window seat and arranged my bags on the other seat. Then I fished out my iPod and untangled the headphones that were wrapped around it. For the next hour, the length of the journey to my mother’s house, I would cocoon myself in music and banish the outside world, letting myself be carried along by the rhythm of the bus.
Then behind me, I heard scuffles and shrieks. Feet pressed against the back of my seat. I swivelled my head. Three children were squashed into a seat for two: two girls aged about ten and a young boy of about five.
They waved at a man whose grew smaller and smaller as the bus inched out of the station. ‘Bye Daddy,’ shouted the boy and one of the girls. Then the man disappeared, and the little boy began to wail.
‘I want Daddy,’ he cried.
‘Be quiet, Jamie,’ said his sister. ‘We’re going home to mammy now.’
‘ I want to go back to Waterford,’ said the boy. ‘I want to go back to Daddy.’
The wails cut through my waves of sound. These weren’t the sounds of a child grandstanding for an audience. These were the sounds of a child in pain. A child who couldn’t understand why he was being shuttled from father to mother. A child who was watching his father disappear.
Unable to Reach Out
I happened to have a vibrating hamster in my bag, a whimsical present from my husband. I pictured myself showing the child that vibrating hamster. Kneeling against the back of my seat and giving the children a reassuring smile. Showing the boy how to make the hamster vibrate by pulling the string. Watching his tears turn to laughter. Pressing the hamster into his hand, a much more useful companion to him than it could be to me. Distracting him from his pain.
But I didn’t. Because I was a stranger, and children are quite rightly taught to fear strangers. Because of the fingers of suspicion that would point at me. Because my actions could be interpreted in a way I never intended, by the children and by other passengers on the bus.
The bus was quite full, full of people who looked as if they had plenty of experience of wiping away the tears of children. But maybe they held the same fear as me, because they didn’t reach out to those children either.
Creating a Different Culture
Is it possible that our efforts to keep children safe, we have put up barriers that prevent us from being kind to them? Barriers that mean a childcare worker can no longer hug a child in their care. That cause men to feel uneasy if they find themselves near a group of children playing in a park. That require people to jump through endless hoops if they want to offer their time and skills to help children.
It is quite right that the culture of covering up crimes against children is beginning to crumble. But are we replacing it with a culture of suspicion? Why don’t we strive instead to create a culture of common sense, of kindness, of balance? A culture that allows us to reach out to a child in distress without fear of pointed fingers.