The unspoken bond amongst parents was in evidence again last week when at the station I found myself moving back from the platform edge. I was daydreaming when I became aware of a conversation somewhere in the background. A young woman was explaining to her small son that when waiting on a platform one should stand behind the yellow line until the train has come to a halt. On hearing this, I was shamed into stepping back.
Then came the inevitable question from the child, “Why behind the line?” The mother’s explanations didn’t quite work for me, and I expect that neither did they for the boy, who simply stared ahead:
“Because when the train doors open you might get hit.” But Mum, I found myself thinking, the trains no longer have hinged doors!
“Because when trains go fast they can suck you on to the track.” But Mum, the trains here are slowing down!
“Because we must let the passengers off first.” But Mum, in the ten or so seconds after the train has stopped and the doors are not yet open, everybody rushes forward anyway!
Whatever the reason, and notwithstanding the fact that at our station the position of the yellow line means that law-abiders are squeezed up against the back wall, I had decided to stand near them to show solidarity. In response the mother gave me a grateful smile. After all, explaining to her child that he should do something, when those around are doing otherwise, is undermining.
In reality, identifying with parents is the norm and I found myself joining in again in different circumstances as I waited behind a family at a road crossing. Hearing the father telling his young daughters to wait for the ‘green man’ had me uncharacteristically standing at the pavement edge until the lights changed.
This parental solidarity continues into one’s children’s adolescence, or it did in our case. There was a period when we worked with other parents in an attempt to curb our children’s propensity for smoking, drinking, late homecoming and the like. The kinship was so strong that when one parent did not cooperate in this otherwise unified approach, her behaviour was seen as irresponsible. In effect she had chosen to collude with the children, which no doubt the children would have noticed and loved.
It would be easy to imagine that older children often see parent bonding as an unnecessary or inappropriate interference, and sometimes they will be right. This was certainly the case on an occasion over forty years ago when we sided with a parent and almost certainly put a child at risk. It was late one summer evening and we heard tapping on the window. From inside there was nothing to be seen and we turned off the lights and headed for bed. But the tapping occurred again, and yet again. I went outside to find a frightened eight-year old cowering in the bushes.
After some coaxing she was sitting sobbing and cold in our front room. She had run away from home and dreaded going back. We had occasionally seen her playing with the children next door and after speaking with the neighbours we discovered her name and were able to contact her parents. Soon the father came round to collect her. Handing her back was all very difficult – she was clearly terrified, and with some justification. Not long after we discovered that the girl had been repeatedly abused by her father and that in the circumstances we had let her down terribly. We had sided with the wrong party.
As I see it, there is a natural bonding that goes on between parents. This is a central, possibly even essential, part of society. But such bonding, when it is uncritical, can disregard the rights and feelings of children. The memory of our handing back a little girl to her abusive father still haunts me. Clearly, in that instance, bonding amongst parents was not the right option.