Sean Moncrieff: The stranger offered to mind Daughter Number Four in the park

Do we trust each other any more? And if not, why not?

Daughter Number Four’s inflexible moral code insists she receives her hot chocolate following the regular visit to the playground. Getty Images

Herself, Daughter Number Four and the dog often spend time in a local park. Number Four rides her bike and visits the playground. The dog barks at lampposts and puddles. Then they go for hot chocolate.

But this time, halfway through the coffee shop queue, Herself realised her mask was in the car.

Explaining to Daughter Number Four that it might be easier to just stop off for a bag of Tayto on the way home was out of the question. Politicians and the like are always blathering on about Calling People to Account, but they don’t really. Not like Daughter Number Four. Make a promise, and you have to deliver. No excuses.

Because of Number Four’s inflexible moral code, and expectation that she would be receiving the aforementioned hot chocolate within the agreed time-frame, a frank exchange of views developed over having to go back to the car and return to the queue.


A stranger, overhearing this debate – as did most people – offered a solution. She would mind Daughter Number Four, the dog and the bicycle while Herself dashed back for the mask. She informed Herself that she was a grandmother to many children and had dogs at home.

Without thinking too much about it. Herself politely declined the offer and went for the longer, tantrum-filled alternative.

Later on, she was fully aware of the irony of this. One of her regular dinner time flights of fancy is that we should live in a world where people would be able to do exactly what that woman had offered.

Herself’s solution is that there should be some sort of vetting process where people would be eventually awarded a badge. If you’re in a restaurant and see a parent struggling to eat their quinoa while holding a screaming baby, you can zip over and whip out your ID. “Ah! Baby Squad!” the grateful parent would say and hand over the shrieking child.

We’ve discussed what the vetting and/or training process would be like, what government department would oversee it and whether such badges could be easily forged; all of which highlight the myriad impossibilities of establishing such a scheme.

Herself admits that the idea is partly self-serving anyway. She’s never seen a baby that she doesn’t want to have a go of, a sentiment I heartily concur with. Babies are great. They smell nice, most of the time, and are pretty straightforward to deal with. Most importantly, they are yet to have opinions on the quality of your parenting.

Social trust

But the greater point here is that Herself’s fantasy scheme shouldn’t be necessary at all. The chances that the granny who offered her help was in fact a child/dog-napper are minuscule. Common sense would tell you that.

Yet I would guess that most parents would have reacted the same way as Herself. If she had taken up the offer, most parents would say: “you left your child with a stranger? You left your dog with a stranger?”

Trust isn’t what it used to be. Various international bodies run polls on what’s known as social trust: how much we trust each other. In response to the question can other people be trusted, around 60 per cent of Irish people say yes: which is depressingly low, and in practice might be even lower than that.

Yet it’s not that surprising. Horrific crimes, no matter how rare, always get pushed to the media foreground: the terrifying case of  Cleo Smith being a very recent example. Studies find younger people – brought up on the cautionary message of Stranger Danger – are significantly less trusting.

Political divisions – no matter what the issue – invariably involve monsterising those we don’t agree with. And our testosterone-charged neo-liberal economic model has one implicit and explicit message: it’s all about You, making it on your own. Ultimately, you can’t rely on anyone else.

Surprise, surprise; in countries with the larger wealth disparities, distrust of other people is higher. Maybe issuing badges isn’t such a bad idea after all.