|Day of the dad: paedophilia hysteria leaves men afraid to help
By Tom Leonard
Last Updated: 11:59AM GMT 23 Mar 2006
The inquest on two-year-old Abigail Rae highlighted a sad dilemma, says Tom Leonard
There was one small detail that jumped out at me in the tragic story of Abigail Rae, the two-year-old who wandered off from her village playgroup and ended up dying in a garden pond. Tucked away at the end of yesterday's inquest report was a line about how Clive Peachey, a bricklayer, drove past a child on her own, whom he later concluded had been Abby.
She was not walking straight, she was tottering, said Mr Peachey. "I kept thinking should I go back? One of the reasons I did not go back is because I thought someone would see me and think I was trying to abduct her."
Without wishing to add to the pain that Mr Peachey must be feeling, I have to say that opinion in my office was divided over his failure to intervene. Everyone agreed it could be filed under "sad sign of the times", but women generally thought his a pathetic excuse, particularly given that Abby was on her own. Men were more sympathetic and one female colleague said she could understand it "in a funny sort of way".
This won't be a funny sort of column. Mr Peachey's experience may be extreme, but knowing how to deal with other people's children is, at the best of times, a pretty humour-free zone.
The inquest didn't hear whether Mr Peachey has children of his own. Many single men manage to pretty much blank children out from their consciousness, so the fact that he even noticed Abby suggests he does (though the fact that he drove on might suggest otherwise). Still, fathers - perhaps most men - will recognise that fear about motives being misinterpreted.
The hysteria over paedophilia hangs like some dark cloud over almost every interaction nowadays between a man and a child that isn't his.
Modern society sends conflicting messages to fathers - you must be more touchy-feely with your own children, but with the rest, you're best advised to keep your touches and feelings to yourself.
And so a dad who can be brilliant with his own brood suddenly becomes hesitant and clumsy simply adjusting the clothing of a daughter's best friend he has known for years.
The playground is perhaps the trickiest locale for dealing with other people's children, whom you are unlikely to know and yet have to talk to and may even have to look after. When, suddenly, the little boy who has been happily playing with your son for 20 minutes falls flat on his face and gets up with a cut on his lip and no grown-ups he knows on hand, what do you do? Well, a mother will rush in with soothing words, pick him up, rub his head gently, maybe even wipe his eyes with a tissue.
And a father? Too often he stands around like a lemon, muttering platitudes as he scours the horizon desperately for the boy's parents, or just anyone he can pass the problem on to.
You comfort but you don't touch. Or in a doctor's case, you diagnose but you don't touch. GPs may get tired of overly worried mums but, my wife has noticed, they'll happily accept her word if it means avoiding physical contact with the young patient.
Sometimes, it's not about wanting to help someone else's child. Quite the contrary, you want to slug the little horror who has just scribbled over your dining table. But of course you don't. In fact, you don't even know whether you should express your displeasure verbally. What will his parents say? Perhaps this "creative expression" is encouraged at home. Are you infringing their human rights if you say anything? Sometimes, the child looks at you as if you are.
This newspaper's chief lawyer probably sums up the memories of many in describing how farmers in north Wales used to greet a little boy with a pat on the head and a coin. Today, when he wants to talk to a child, he makes sure he first gets a smile out of the parent and mentions that he has grandchildren.
Abby would have been too young to know the rules about strangers, but what would have happened if Mr Peachey had stopped to help a slightly older child. Nowadays, the standard advice to lost children is unambiguous - find a police officer or, failing that, a woman with a child.
Note, not a man with a child and certainly not a man without one.