Sunday, 27 March 2016

Helping a stranger's child: a challenging experience

It’s a little difficult these days to work out how to behave with children one doesn’t know. That’s not a complaint: I regard society’s resolve to eradicate child abuse welcome and long overdue. But it does mean that men, in particular, have to wonder how their behaviour towards a stranger’s child is going to be interpreted, even if their motive is to help  rather than harm.

Years ago, when one of my sons was four and had just fallen flat on his face in Grafton Street, Dublin, he was picked up and put back on his feet by a young man going the other way, who didn’t even break step let alone pause to be thanked.

Today, I’d hesitate to do anything similar. Indeed, I try to avoid any kind of contact with a child I don’t know. It just isn’t worth the suspicion it raises.

A week’s holiday in France, however, reveals that attitudes there remain more traditional. In a restaurant, a woman asked me whether I would mind keeping an eye on her three children for a few minutes. It was as though I was being asked to keep an eye on a suitcase, except that had it been a suitcase, I would probably have refused – they’re a lot more dangerous than kids these days.

The biggest surprise, however, came when we were standing at the bottom of a chairlift in the ski resort where we spent most of the week. A young ski instructor appealed to our party, asking that each of us in turn travel in the lift with one of the four-year-olds in the group he was teaching.

“Come on,” he told us, “don’t be shy. They won’t do you any harm. And they know how to handle the chairlift.”

I’d forgotten that there was a limit (of height, actually – 1.25 metres – rather than age) on kids taking the chairlift unaccompanied by an adult. How does a teacher, alone, get a group to the top? Like Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar named Desire, he had always to depend on the kindness of strangers.

So we each took a kid and went up.

It was a terrifying experience, though not in fact because of any possible suspicions of our motives. No, it froze the blood for reasons of simple physical safety.

While the bar at the front the chair was plenty to stop an adult slipping out, and probably any child down to the age of seven or even six, for a four-year-old it would have been… well, child’s play, to slide under the bar and off the chair, falling ten or twenty metres to certain injury if not death on the ground below.

That might not have been too bad had they sat quietly in their place. But these were four-year-olds. How could they possibly take a chairlift ride without twisting around in their seat and waving to their friends behind them? And each time they did they slipped forward on the chair and closer to destruction.

So what was I to do? Grab the child? Hold him forcibly in place? Not a chance. I’ve been bombarded for years with clear messages that I was to do nothing of the kind with a child not my own, or without the authority of a parent.

So I sat there frozen to the spot watching every movement the kid made, making no motion to touch him unless it became the only way of avoiding disaster.

I’d made a couple of attempts at conversation, but there were pretty well six decades between us. We didn’t have an awful lot in common to chat about. So we travelled in silence, petrified silence in my case. Just before we reached the top, I did, however, have one key question to ask him.

“Do you know how to get off the chair?”

“No,” he said, with an air I can only call expectant. Clearly, as an adult, I was going to have a solution.

I racked my brain.

“Shall I hold your hand as we get down?”

“Yes,” he said, “hold my hand.”

The words, and the smile that accompanied them, convinced me that this constituted permission.

So, with the barrier up and the mound of snow to ski down approaching, I held out my hand and a little one was thrust into it. And the whole operation was a brilliant success! We were straight up onto our skis, sliding down the far side of the snow mound towards the group.

“I’ll leave you with your friends, then,” I told him as I let go of his hand.

After the event: they ski off with never a care in the world...
Filmed by Danielle

But by then he had other things to think of. Friends to catch up with, who he hadn’t seen for minutes and minutes. He slid gracefully in amongst them and took up his normal preoccupations.

And I moved away pleased that what could have been a harrowing experience, for more than one reason, had turned out so easy after all.

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