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Empathy and blame

The disappearance of a little girl reveals cultural differences in parenting.

PRAIA DA LUZ, Portugal - The disappearance of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, the British girl who vanished from her hotel room in Portugal while her parents dined 50 yards away, has captivated hearts and triggered debate around the world.

Were her parents negligent to leave Madeleine and her 2-year-old twin siblings alone, even for a brief time? Or should they have been able to expect a certain level of safety in this family-friendly southern resort town?

The questions cut to the heart of a universal vulnerability that terrifies parents everywhere. Yet answers differ widely - revealing cultural differences within Europe and across the Atlantic.

In Portugal and much of the rest of southern Europe, where parents often take their young children along with them to smoky bars, many have accused the McCanns of neglect, despite the fact that they were at a poolside restaurant just seconds away from the room and say they checked on their sleeping children every half hour.

Magda Carlan, a 37-year-old Portuguese homemaker with daughters aged 2 and 4, blamed the McCanns, who both are doctors, for their own nightmare. "Children should never be left alone. It is wrong. When I go on vacation with small girls, I am very careful."

Francisco Vieira, 77, who is a parking-lot attendant near the beach in Praia da Luz, said he and his wife would never have left their two children alone. "We'd either take them with us or one of us would stay behind," he said.

Many Portuguese travelers express distaste over attitudes toward children in Britain, particularly notices in some British pubs that make clear that children are not welcome.

British parents, and many of their American counterparts, object to the secondhand smoke and loud music to which children are subjected on nights out in Spain and Portugal.

Culture clashes have emerged as a theme in child dramas in the past.

In 1997, a toddler was left in a stroller outside a New York City restaurant while her mother dined inside, prompting diners to phone police.

After being arrested for neglect, the mother maintained that the practice was common in her native Denmark and sued the city for false arrest. The charges were dropped, and she was awarded $66,401.

Even mild criticism of the McCanns, who are from central England, has caused outrage in Britain, where the nation has rallied around the family. Images of the blond little girl are ubiquitous on TV and in print.

Celebrities such as J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, and entrepreneur Richard Branson have pledged money to a reward fund that now tops $4.9 million.

The British tabloids have taken aim at Praia da Luz police, complaining about a lack of information and perceived lack of progress in the case. They have taken to calling the police chief "hapless" and accused other officers of being asleep on the job.

Friends of the McCanns have described them as doting parents, insisting there is no way they could have imagined their child would be snatched from the resort compound while they sat so nearby.

Portuguese police have questioned the parents extensively as witnesses in the disappearance, but they have not been named as suspects in any crime.

Jon Clarke, 34, a physics teacher in London, said that British parents were not encouraged to take children to restaurants and that he would consider leaving his own 3-year-old alone if it was in a safe place where he could easily check on her.

"If you take children to a restaurant in Britain," he said, "it's more often the attitude that the children shouldn't be there, whereas in Spain, Italy, France, they're more welcoming."

In Spain, what the McCanns did is all but unheard-of. Spanish parents take their children everywhere, and it is common to see small children running around a town square while parents have drinks well into the night.

Richard Howells, a professor of cultural and creative industries at King's College in London, said the case had touched a nerve in Britain because it was so easy to identify with the family.

"You can project yourself in that situation, and you can feel how they're feeling, how terrible it is," he said. "Even though you don't personally know them, you feel through the media that you can."