Dear Virginia, We live next door to two nice, high-flying business people. They have a two-year-old daughter. When they are around, they seem to love her very much. But during the week an au pair looks after her. I hear the au pair screaming at her, saying she's horrible. The child is very withdrawn. Should I tell the parents, or would I be interfering? Yours sincerely, Annie
On the way to the shops recently, I heard the blood-curdling screams of a child from an open window. I wasn't the only person who was disturbed. Other people were looking up, shaking their heads, raising their eyebrows and moving, worriedly, on. The house was one of those sinister buildings, with towels pinned to the windows. Although all was quiet when I returned, I was shaking and almost in tears at the memory of the sound, so I rang the Social Services who told me to ring the police, who came round in a matter of seconds.
Now, it turned out that it was simply a teenager throwing a terrific tantrum, but was I right to interfere? Of course I was. How could I have lived with myself if I hadn't done something about it?
There is absolutely no question that you should "interfere" - though I would describe it more as bringing something into the open. It's up to the parents whether they do anything about this au pair, after all. Although we pass by these child abuses - and I'm afraid I am often too cowardly to upbraid a shrieking mother in the street, pretending to myself that it's "none of my business" - what we must remember is that a build-up of actions like these can harm a child for all of his or her life.
A little two-year-old child's brain is still growing and, subjected to abuse and put-downs like this, is in danger of actually developing in a way that will affect her for the rest of her life. You would not fail to report a woman deliberately maiming her child in order to get money for begging, because you know that the injuries would affect the child permanently. It's no different with emotional abuse. And to allow any child to be subjected to treatment which may result in her suffering from anxiety and depression for life is little short of criminal.
Of course, there's the risk that her parents may feel a bit put out, but it doesn't sound as if you're close friends, more polite and well-disposed neighbours. But if you can possibly keep a record of the shouting, and write down exactly what the girl says, it will be that much more convincing. If you keep dates and times, as well, it will look more official, and though I doubt you'd want to take the accusations any further, a list will imply that you might, which could mean they take you more seriously.
Anyway, who cares if in future they cut you dead? Even if they don't sack the au pair, they'll almost certainly have words with her (she clearly doesn't behave like this when they're around, so she knows it's wrong) and you will know that you've done your very best for that poor child.
I bet they'll be incredibly grateful. Because imagine if it were your child going through such torment. Wouldn't you be glad if some caring neighbour told you what was going on? Wouldn't you feel forever in their debt? Or imagine if it had been you, when you were tiny?
She needs your help
Please urge Annie to let her neighbours know immediately about their au pair's behaviour. Two-year-olds cannot let anyone know that they are being ill-treated, which is one of the reasons why the under-threes should be with a parent. During hours spent in parks and playgrounds with my own children and now grandchildren, I have observed mothers smile at their children as they lift them out of their pushchairs, perhaps dropping kisses; they push the swings, talking to the children. The childminder doesn't indulge in conversation or kisses, gives the swing a perfunctory push, and sits down, only returning to "duty" when the child cries or is trying to get out of the swing. Those first three years can never be relived; please help to make this little girl's childhood happy and fruitful.
Take no chances
You can't take any chances where children are concerned, so I would record the au pair screaming and shouting, over the period of a week, either on a mobile phone or dictaphone, together with the dates and times, then approach the parents with the "evidence", saying that you don't want to interfere, but you feel they have a right to know. After all, you would never forgive yourself if something horrible happened to the child!
Malton, North Yorkshire
End her suffering
You should tell the little girl's parents of your concerns. You would certainly not be "interfering". Why allow the parents' love and care for their child to be undermined by the terrible treatment meted out to her by the nanny? After all, it is not as if your neighbours are paying the woman to abuse their child. I expect that the parents will be shocked to learn about it, but grateful to you for pointing it out to them. If the boot was on the other foot, wouldn't you be?
Act now and prevent this little girl from having to go through any further suffering. And imagine how happy you would be if you saw her in a few weeks' time, being looked after by a new au pair, under whose care she was obviously blossoming. Have no doubt: you'll be doing the right thing.
Tell them now
You must tell your neighbours what you have heard. This clearly is affecting the child but, from our experience, she will not think to tell her parents as she has no other point of reference, so may think that it is normal behaviour, and she has been told by her parents to obey the au pair. When our daughter was six, we discovered that the au pair was taking our children to visit her boyfriend, with whom she had been canoodling while leaving our two children with other people. We would have welcomed that a neighbour mentioned something. As luck would have it, there were no problems, but the au pair went from us rather quickly.
Name and address supplied
You should try to stop worrying about the girl. If you try to tell her parents, they will think you are spying on their family. You do not know why the au pair screams at her. It may be because the child does not eat properly, or does not sleep at the times specified to her. You must take into account the lifestyle of your neighbours. Parents try to give their child the best possible start.
Next Week's Dilemma
My father has only weeks to live. The problem is, he wants to take over the funeral: he has already lined up someone to give a talk, and wants to vet it. All the hymns are chosen; he's even designed the headstone! My sister and I want to make some contribution, but he won't hear of it. She says once he's dead we can do what we like, but I feel uneasy. He's always been a control freak. What should we do? Yours sincerely, HelenReuse content