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Hush little baby, donít say a word

By Kate Leaver - posted Monday, 25 August 2008


If it is our biological imperative to make babies, it is our most basic instinct to protect them. Baby-makers and baby-carers everywhere know what a challenge it can be to shelter a tiny human being from the dangers of the world ... from the cold, the rain, the sun, the road. Sharp objects, moving vehicles, heights, fire. Hairdryers in the bath, knives in the toaster, fingers in the electric socket. Things they could fall off, fall into, have fall on them.

How will we know where Baby is all the time, without eyes in the backs of our heads? How do we stop Baby falling from a great height in a flaming vehicle? How could we live with ourselves if we left Baby alone long enough to take the hairdryer swimming in the rain?

What happens when we have to protect Baby from ourselves?

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When the whisper of pedophilia is enough to start a witch hunt and the prospect of abduction is ever-present in the news, it’s no longer just about Baby. It’s about warding off the panic and the hype of parenthood. It’s about knowing that phantom kidnappers don’t make regular visits to your neighbourhood. It’s about teaching your child early how to think for themselves. It’s about somehow debunking sensational news stories.

It is no wonder that abductions of children, cases of sexual abuse and gross negligence are given such priority on News/Current Affairs programs. They offend our most sacred moral standard; to protect children. We watch stories about helpless parents so we can indulge our own fears. This vicarious vulnerability is exacerbated by the knowledge that we can secure any of our other assets, but not our offspring. There are security systems to protect cars, pets, houses, buildings, phones and computers but the chilling absence of any mechanism to protect our children breeds paranoia among parents. Parental paranoia feeds into media panic - and there begins the cycle of public fear.

Madeleine McCann, who disappeared over a year ago in Portugal while her parents were having dinner nearby, has had unprecedented media attention. For the duration of her case, newspapers have affectionately referred to Madeleine as “Maddie”, despite being told by her father that family and friends had never used this nickname; clearly a device to make her more familiar to us.

Pretty, blonde and fine-boned, “Maddie” was presented as the every-child to appeal to the universal fear of losing a child. The story ceased to be about one girl; it became about good and evil, parenting skills, childhood vulnerability, babysitting, Portuguese tapas, truth and grief.

“Our Maddie” is emblematic of the fear that pervades the Western psyche and the media’s propensity to play into it. Her parents have made a website complete with daily blogs, links to donate money and a timer to count how many days she has been missing. British tabloid papers have paid the McCann’s $60,000 compensation for accusing them of killing their own child. Busloads of tourists have arrived in Portugal to see the places where Maddie slept and where her parents ate.

Very little thought seems to have gone into the effects that such attention might have on Maddie’s siblings, Maddie’s friends and any child who watches her on the news.

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Consider Madeleine McCann herself, whose angelic face has been seen by anyone who has watched TV, read a paper or been on the Internet in the last year, whose parents have been accused of her murder and whose trauma has been exposed for all to see. If she were to be found, she would grow up a morbid kind of celebrity whose personal horror held the world captive during her formative toddler years.

Media coverage of the “Maddie” case has misrepresented the significance of the story and implicitly suggested that foreign abduction is a perennial concern. This is a terrifying notion for parents, but because of their underdeveloped grasp of empathy children have far more difficulty in qualifying that kidnapping is not an ever-present threat.

Similarly, how are children to know that babies are not left by dumpsters, killed by their axe-wielding grand-fathers or gassed to death in a car with their brothers and father every day?

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About the Author

Kate Leaver is the editor of Honi Soit, the weekly newsletter of the Student Representative Council of The University Of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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