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Why are Madeleine's parents heroes?
Last uploaded : Friday 25th May 2007 at 02:59
Contributed by : Carol Gould



The other night I was in a restaurant with a Jewish friend who said he was shocked to the core of his being that any couple could leave their tiny children unattended as they dined away from their holiday chalet. The topic was, of course, the internationally-reported story of little Madeleine McCann, snatched from her bed on 3 May in Praia da Luz, a Portuguese resort popular with Britons.

I agreed with my friend, adding that I am sure it is regarded as a violation of parental responsibility -- short of being an out-and-out crime -- in some American states to leave toddlers and babies unattended.

Lo and behold as my meal got cold a woman at the next table proceeded to bend my ear about how wrong I was. She asked me if I had not thought about the guilt that will plague the McCanns for the rest of their lives, and then launched into a bizarre narrative about her own childhood filled with abuse and neglect by her mother, who had been abandoned by her father.

She did not allow me to get a word in edgewise but I tried to point out that it might be my over-protected American upbringing that made me feel so ill-disposed towards the McCanns. There have been jokes for decades from American comedians about neurotic Jewish mothers. Indeed, even in the age of the working mother a large proportion of both non-Jewish and Jewish American homes are fiercely family-driven and meals are a central part of the intellectual development of children.

Taking it one step further, the church-focussed families of the United States ( statistically the most religiously observant Christian nation in the world) are intensely child-friendly. In a long article in The Atlantic Monthly two years ago the clergy of the African American community acknowledged that ferocious efforts by the church to bring black youth off the streets and into a faith community had worked spectacularly well. Indeed, in previous generations when church was not at the receiving end of daily denigration by the media and Richard Dawkins, Britain also had a family and child-focussed social structure.

In this tragic story there is one element that to me, having lived away from the USA for thirty-one years, is crucial to the story. It is not a generalisation to say that Italians, Israelis, Americans and diaspora Jews dote on their children and regard them as priceless company from the time they say their first words. Every precious thing the little darlings do is cause for excitement. Donald Rumsfeld’s mother kept a scrapbook of his every achievement from preschool age. I have witnessed American parents of every ethnic background kissing, hugging and chattering with their little ones in restaurants, hotel lobbies, in stores and at baseball games, doting on them from kickoff to going-home time as if they were precious jewels.

A few years ago I attended an interfaith seminar at Cambridge and a woman at the study table said 'I think it is ghastly the way Jewish boys and girls are forced to study for that awful bar mitzvah thing.' I was astounded. It is the one thing the huge majority of Jewish children enjoy most from age ten. How many ASBOs are being handed to Jewish teenagers?

In recent years a money and celebrity-obsessed, secular Britain has seen a huge rise in divorce, alcoholism, child pregnancies and crime. The traditions within the family have been eroded, most particularly church attendance. The McCanns appear to be everything noble -- devoutly Catholic, in a happy marriage and articulate, yet might they, too, have lost that vestige of passionate devotion to children that other cultures still seem to retain? One must hasten to add that there are millions of British parents fiercely devoted to the welfare of their children, but in the recent years of the working mother, there has been a rising tide of troubled families.

In the worst scenario, throughout my decades of adult life in London I have seen parents smack, drag by an arm nearly falling from the socket and generally abhor their little ones in public places and even in homes I have visited. The ‘shut up or I‘ll smack you!‘ syndrome is endemic in Britain.

I cannot imagine my Muslim neighbours who face my house and whom I count as friends leaving their two toddlers alone for one moment. Then again, their home is always filled with family and when they go abroad the elderly aunt or grandmother is there to be an extra eye on the children’s wellbeing.

Putting aside cultural traditions, one does wonder thus: if the McCanns did not want their toddler and even younger twins in the restaurant, what on earth possessed them not to hire a nanny or childminder in the village? How can anyone leave three tiny babes alone for hours? What if one was stung by a bee or had a nightmare? What if one of the children had been stricken with heatstroke or a choking fit? I remember my late mother telling me about her years as a US Army WAC stationed in South Texas, when in a matter of seconds one could be fatally stung by the local scorpions; she said Mexicans always kept their toddlers alongside them when they snoozed in siesta.

Mrs McCann says she and her husband looked in on the children every half hour, although London‘s ‘The Evening Standard’ newspaper reports that the couple acknowledge that the patio door was left unlocked. The entire scenario makes me sick, but I am sure it is my own over-protected childhood influencing this view.

Is there a cultural difference in the raising and nurturing of children? When I lived in Israel I admired the paradox of life in that beleaguered nation: one could come across ‘packs ‘ of adorable -- but unaccompanied-- little kids in the public squares in the evening doing their homework together or just sharing colouring books, but every five minutes their mobile phones would ring with calls from Imma and Abba -- mum and dad. Israeli children out and about with their parents chatter and debate, treated as valued miniature adults and smothered with affection from the earliest age. The same is true of Italians.

This is not a generalisation; my sister lived in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Little Italy in Philadelphia now, where famiglia is sacred. I grew up in the USA and in recent long visits have witnessed first-hand the fuss made by parents over their children, as if they are celebrity guests, not nuisances ’to be seen and not heard.’ Add to this a Jewish-American upbringing and perhaps this explains why so few Jewish youths get into serious trouble in big cities. If you are loved and valued and noticed with appreciation at the dinner table from high-chair to bar-mitzvah years, you feel protected and valued as adulthood approaches.

My feelings towards the McCanns remain harsh and unchanged. Notwithstanding the arguments made to me by many in London, my heart is not moved. It is beyond comprehension that one could leave vulnerable toddlers alone in a strange environment away from home without an adult in attendance close by. My worst moment in this near-month that has passed since the poor child’s disappearance was the sight of the McCanns arriving at church in the Portuguese village applauded by a long, deep reception line of local expatriate Britons and tourists. Has the world gone mad? Applause? For what?

I have no complaint about the McCanns wanting a romantic, wine-filled evening away from the pressures of young parenthood, but how can anyone applaud a couple who left precious little ones unattended in unfamiliar surroundings in a hot climate abroad? Short of criminal charges being brought for this kind of parental neglect, new legislation should be proposed regarding the strict protection of children in holiday resorts.

Call me cold-hearted, but if I saw the McCanns I would not applaud them, to put it mildly.


Carol Gould was ITV Drama Commissioner at Anglia for many years and wrote ‘Spitfire Girls,’ about the British women pilots of WWII. Her most recent films were "Evacuees and Bevin Boys' about chidren in the Second World War; she has been a panellist on BBC ‘Any Questions?‘ and is Editor of CurrentViewpoint.com


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