A heart-scald in this instance

What a horror it was, last week, to learn of the incident in which a little boy had been severely burned, allegedly by his stepfather, with the deed reportedly kept under wraps by his mother.  It was enough to make the nation cringe in pain, real and imagined, and to underscore for us, in POWA, the continuing need for forums like School Call In … For Parents and the parenting initiatives undertaken by the faculty of the TN Kirnon School.

Parenting is never an easy job, not even when one’s children have graduated into adulthood; and conscientious parents understand – even when they are at their wits’ end – that their first duties to their offspring are to protect and nurture.  Even domestic animals, without the ability to reason, do so by instinct.

So when an incident as grave as that which happened to that seven year old occurs, it must bring us up short in wonder at what, possibly, could have gone wrong.

Ours is a culture long rooted in the ethos of not sparing the rod and spoiling the child; but ours is also a tradition in which parents, particularly mothers, have made intervention for leniency even in the face of egregious error.  Who among us, after all, hasn’t had pardon begged on our behalf, whether of the headmaster who planned to dole out deserved punishment or of the neighbour whose window we broke playing street cricket?

When they were not engaged in placating adults we had offended, our grandmothers and mothers were busy throwing themselves, bodily, between their children and what they considered danger, even when the threat was the children’s father, himself.  Again, who among us has not felt the protection of a raging she-bear, pushing her young to safety behind her body, as she demanded of a menacing father, “Is kill you want to kill my child?” And even in instances where the wifely instinct may have been dulled by abuse or intimidation, the maternal instinct refused to cower.  For many were the women who volunteered to “take blows” from their men in order that their children might be spared.

Of course, we know that there are exceptions: Children are not always deserving of defence or leniency, and mothers are sometimes so cowed by, or so dependent upon, a man that the usual rules and traditions do not apply.  But we cannot, by any stretch of imagination or generosity, understand or condone the actions taken, and not taken, in this case.

What could afford any man such a sense of security that he could, with premeditation, commit such an action, especially against a child?  What could make him so sure that there would be no hell to pay?  And why?  Is it possible he had been shown that, bar none, he was the most important person in the mother’s universe; that her love for, or need of, him was so strong that no one and nothing could sway it?  Or was fear the thing casting out perfect love?

What could compel any woman to go along with, or look away from, or cover up for such a man and his outrages?  Could it be that she had she been disappointed, let down, or abandoned by her previous relationship(s) and, so, was determined to make this one work?  Or could it be the fear of his greater strength, or his emotional cruelty, being brought to bear, or of her financial security being undermined?

Or, could it have been a mutual throwing-up of hands in despair at an incorrigible child; a feeling of “don’t know what else to do;” a decision, spoken or otherwise, that, next time, “who won’t hear will feel?”

In this day and age, there are scores, hundreds, possibly thousands of parents slaving to pay off cell phone or long-distance bills their children, wittingly or unwittingly, have racked up.  Other parents are repaying loans on vehicles their offspring crashed; or honouring lawyer fees for their kids’ misdemeanours and felonies; or footing the bills for alcohol or drug rehabilitation; or laying out money to rear unplanned grandchildren.  It might not be right, or convenient, or cheap; but these are the occupational hazards of that thing called parenting.  And there is never a guarantee that, having invested it all, there will even be a return.  …

We don’t know, and we won’t know for a while, what happened in this particular home.  What we do know, however, is that there should be no repeat of it.  Parents must become more vigilant, not only about their children’s physical safety, but about those in whose care kids are left.  Parents must also be eagle-eyed and sharp-tongued, if necessary, where their mates are concerned, remembering our foremothers’ adage about cow and calf.  For not every boyfriend or girlfriend deserves to be, or is capable of being, a stepfather or stepmother; and what is corn for the cock and hen might stick in the craw of the chickens.

And, finally, those men who father children must begin to, or continue, being a parent to them, whether or not the kids are in their care.  Men cannot continue to pat themselves on the back, congratulating themselves for “feeding muh pickney;” for children cannot live by bread alone.  It is not enough to send the maintenance money; men must take it, taking the time, as well, to actually see how their sons and daughters live.  In their absence, all things are possible; but fathers’ presence in their children’s daily lives makes caregivers’ – whoever they are – accountable. …

The Irish, particularly in the face of family disappointment or shortcoming, will refer to the event as a “heart-scald.”  In the face of the pain this nation feels, we cannot think of a better phrase to describe our grief.


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