If the only tolerable level of risk to our children is zero, we’d better call off life

Jennifer O'Connell: I suspect what we’re most scared of isn’t the daily livestream of risks. It is the censure of other parents

We have let Irish children down in the past, inexcusably and with unthinkable consequences, and we quite rightly want to make sure that never happens again.

We have let Irish children down in the past, inexcusably and with unthinkable consequences, and we quite rightly want to make sure that never happens again.

 

When it comes to child safety, you can’t be too careful. That’s one of those self-evidently true, sensible, rational statements, that starts to fall apart as soon as you examine it.

“You can’t be too careful” was the rationale behind warnings from schools, the PSNI, the gardaí and the media last week about Momo, the “dangerous online suicide game”. Few people managed to get beyond the words “online” and “suicide” before panic set in. Schools here and in Britain sent out warnings to parents. A Kardashian picked up on it. Questions were asked in the British parliament.

It later turned out to have been a hoax, as any 11-year-old in the country could no doubt have predicted – if only someone had bothered to ask, instead of succumbing to the joyous delirium of an instant moral panic.

For the record, I did ask the 11-year-old tech obsessive in my life. “Never heard of it,” he said immediately, and I felt a glimmer of disappointment to have been denied a close encounter with the latest moral panic.

As we cycle through one terrifying news story after another, it is a scary time to be parent. The litany of risks to your children’s wellbeing gets longer every time you refresh your browser. Fortnite. YouTube Kids. Sexting. Internet predators. Slime. Vaping. Social media. LOL Surprise! trading cards. Sun lotion. Furby. The Monkey app. We pay attention to them all just in case – you can’t be too careful.

The Scouting Ireland controversy belongs to a special class of fears, devoted to our very darkest terrors. Child abuse is perhaps the most emotive issue in our society. The allegations relating to over 300 alleged cases of past abuses, and current “live cases”, are alarming and distressing. So, too, was the warning from Tusla that it has “serious concerns” over both the ability of Scouting Ireland to keep children safe from harm, and over its procedures for investigating claims of abuse.

Children’s minister Katherine Zappone and various child protection experts advised parents to decide for themselves if it is safe to send their children on overnight scouting trips.

No parent in their right mind would blithely ignore the advice of the children’s minister and assorted child protection experts. I’d rather shut down an organisation than put one child at risk, another parent said to me recently.

I get it. We have let Irish children down in the past, inexcusably and with unthinkable consequences, and we quite rightly want to make sure that never happens again. “You can’t be too careful” has become the starting point, and the endpoint, of every conversation about child protection. It’s a refrain that shuts down any further discussion. And it’s all very well in theory – on radio call in shows, during angry exchanges in the Dáil – but there is a high price to be paid for that kind of extreme conservatism.

Leaving aside the Scouting Ireland controversy – about which the facts were still emerging at the time of writing – we need to have a wider conversation about how far we’re prepared to go to keep our children safe from harm. Because if the only tolerable level of risk to our children is zero, it’s not just scouting weekends we need to reconsider. We’d better call off life. Cancel school. Shut down the internet. School trips, Irish college, summer camps, sporting clubs, public parks, swimming pools, playgrounds, beaches, daycare.

In reality, risk is everywhere. It’s there every time we let our children go on a playdate, drop them off to school, leave them with a babysitter, watch them climb onto a trampoline, feed them popcorn. But we weigh it up and decide to let them do it anyway, because children need to live. They must be allowed to grow, get an education, experience life, make mistakes, and find their way in the world. If they don’t do that, they’ll never learn to navigate risk for themselves.

Terrible mistakes were made in the past because parents were too trusting. But there’s a danger now that the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. The more of these frightening revelations and warnings we consume, the more anxious we feel, the more extreme measures we’re prepared to take to keep our children safe, and our minds easy.

Deep down, I suspect what we’re most scared of isn’t the daily livestream of real and imaginary risks we’re being fed. It is the censure of other parents. In this atmosphere of hypervigilance and hypercriticism, the very worst charge that can be levelled at you is that of being a “bad parent” – which is frequently shorthand for “occasionally putting your needs before theirs”.

The desire to criticise other parents is a primal one, buried in our own anxieties about being judged, or making the wrong choices. And it is the constant cycle of terrifying news stories that stokes those anxieties, while giving us the deeply comforting illusion of control. If you do things differently to THAT mother or THOSE parents, the message seems to be, your child will stay safe. As anyone who has experienced tragedy will tell you, it’s not that easy. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how careful you are – but nobody wants to think about that.

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