A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an article about two toddlers who had been found in a park in Geelong. In the middle of winter. Wearing only nappies. Without an adult in sight. Which I think we can all agree is not ideal.
I could feel myself creating a mental image of what had happened and who was to blame. I’m not sure why I thought I needed to form an opinion. I knew very little of the circumstances, and I did know that the children were now home with their mother, and the authorities were aware and said there were no suspicious circumstances. But so often we do judge things, don’t we? I do, anyway, despite the fact that they have nothing to do with me, and I find myself forming these judgments based on very little information.
This time I caught myself in the process and paused. I remembered a very similar incident I was involved in about two years ago, how easy it was to jump to the wrong conclusions, and also what it was like to feel as though I was judged.
I’d been for a walk during my lunch-break and as I was heading back, I spotted two people ahead. One adult and one child. Standing at the intersection of a very busy highway and a side street. As I drew closer, I saw the man looked uneasy, and the child – a boy – couldn’t have been more than two. And he wasn’t wearing shoes and his legs were exposed. It was quite a cold day (it was a typical, grey, midwinter’s day in Melbourne). Again – not a good situation.
To the relief of the man who was standing beside the toddler, I offered to help, and ended up walking / carrying him to work (as we couldn’t find out the little boy’s name or where he lived – he would only say the one word, ‘Mummy’ over and over – and I didn’t have a phone to ring the police or human services), then I took him to the police nearby, and he was collected by his father later that day.
However, over the next few hours, there were a lot of points at which suspicions were raised, or judgments made – sometimes fleeting, sometimes lingering. Most of these were unfounded. It made me realise how many times we can make judgments, even over a very short period of time.
In this case, I noticed myself having the following thoughts, and felt the same from others:
- What was this man doing with this child and why did he look uneasy? This looks dodgy
Actually, he looked pretty uneasy because ‘I’m just not comfortable being with him’. And then I realised – of course he wouldn’t be. Streams of cars driving past, probably having similar thoughts to me (what’s a single man doing with a small, half naked child?) No wonder he was grateful for an escape – he disappeared very quickly down the road. .
- What was I doing with a small child who wasn’t my own – and what was (wasn’t) he wearing?
Even as a woman (and therefore someone who is less likely to be judged), I felt uncomfortable walking back to work, wondering what others might be thinking – particularly when I picked him up (see point below).
- Whoever was supposed to be looking after him wasn’t doing a very good job. Must have shocking parents / carers!
To speed up the process (the poor kid was only a toddler, and had no shoes), I asked if he would like to be carried. He lifted his arms up and said ‘Mummy’ and so I picked him up. And that’s when I realised he really wasn’t wearing much at all. No shorts, no underpants, not even a nappy. Only a t-shirt. Great. I felt a mixture of pity, annoyance at his parent(s) and self consciousness. Carrying a stranger’s almost naked child is not something I am comfortable doing
- Well, what do you expect, given where he lives?
This was a comment made from a customer, who overheard the calls I made to human services and then the police (who were the first point of call, apparently, when no contact details are available).
Although I was still annoyed, I started to feel defensive for the poor little kid and whoever was caring for him – and annoyed at her for jumping to conclusions
As someone who has raised two toddlers knows, things happen. Parents fall asleep when they are trying to settle their children, clothes come off during nappy training stage, or just because it seems like fun to a toddler, particularly if said parent is asleep. There could be a reasonable explanation. How dare she judge them based on where they live?
- The police have got to get their priorities straight
The local police station was close by. However, no one would come to collect this little boy. I had to take him up – walking. I was not pleased. SURELY someone could come down with a car and collect him, not make him (and me) walk. But no. Grrrr.
When I got there, I found that both cars were out, due to a major car accident. Ok – I guess that was a bigger priority.
- Guilt at leaving him
After providing what little information I knew, I looked at the little boy, who I’d become quite attached to. ‘What’s going to happen?’ I asked. I was advised that they would check it out, but they expected the parent(s) to contact them. ‘Don’t worry’, I was told. ‘I’m sure it will all turn out ok – we’ll let you know’. Reluctantly, I left the station, with the sounds of a toddler screaming ‘Muuummmy! Mummmy!’ ringing in my ears. Poor thing. Left behind again. Maybe I should have stayed.
- Nothing suspicious (do I believe them?)
By 6pm, having not heard an update, I rang the police. ‘Oh yes’, I was told. ‘His father came to collect him. Nothing suspicious’. I know they were reluctant to tell me more, but I managed to get further information. The mother had gone to work, by train (and therefore crossed the highway). The father had fallen asleep beside the new baby. The toddler decided he wanted to find his mother – the front door wasn’t closed properly – so he walked out but when he got to the highway, he was confused. He was safe at home now. I don’t know if this is true – but I can only trust that I was told the truth.
What I learned
At least the police were now aware, and hopefully the little boy was now ok. What I do know is that a mistake was made – one that many of us could have made. No one has ever parented flawlessly. I also know that the little boy stopped before crossing the road − which was very fortunate. I know that people were prepared to help (if not the man before me, and me, someone else would have), and we have a system that, although not perfect, is pretty good at reuniting missing children.
I don’t know anything more – and I don’t need to make any more guesses or speculate. I felt how easy it was to pass judgements (and how many times!), and also to feel the suspicion of others (it might have been all in my mind, but I felt it anyway). And it isn’t pleasant.
So I stopped my sanctimonious, judgemental assumptions about the two children in Geelong before they had taken hold.
Which was a good thing. Two days later, I received a call from school. Apparently we had forgotten to fill the form and pay for the sausage sizzle that day, and our kids had no lunch. Opps. I guess no one is perfect.
It can be tempting to jump to conclusions. Have you fallen into similar traps to me, or do you have ways to avoid it?