The question I asked readers to contribute to last month was : “What do you do if you see a parent verbally abusing their child (or otherwise acting very inappropriately) in a public situation?” Former Victoria Times-Colonist reporter Holly Nathan called to tell me about the article she’d just written about her experience of being investigated by the police when someone reported her for supposedly locking her child out of the car. Holly, used to being a respected professional, found herself “made to feel like a criminal” because she merely waited in the car for an out-of-control child to get in the car with her. Someone had jumped to conclusions and called the police. Holly made the point to me that “As a mother you have no status and no power.” She believes that the lack of status given to mothers in our society makes them vulnerable.It took me back to when my daughter was small. Her little friend’s mother had to make a brief stop when driving, and not wanting to disturb her child’s sleep, locked the doors of her van and left the child there. Someone came along and the result was that the little girl was taken to a stranger’s home and didn’t see her mother for two weeks. Now, obviously it was very unwise for that mother to leave her child alone in a van even for a few minutes. But the devastation this child experienced from that event lasted for years, during which she was afraid to let her mother out of her sight. The authorities thought they were protecting the child, but in her mind she had been kidnapped. My first point, then, is don’t jump to conclusions and call the authorities with regards to events you don’t understand. You could hurt both a parent and a child. Holly Nathan writes “I don’t believe that lack of humanity, failure to understand children, and quick conclusions about abuse of children should give people undue power to summons the state.”
There is a place to call the authorities – if you have evidence that a child is being abused or neglected, it is your obligation as a citizen to report that abuse. In theory, this is fine. In practice, it’s more difficult. Child abuse and neglect are a matter of degree, and you have to make a judgment call. You should call the authorities if either the parent’s visible behavior is clearly abusive, or the child discloses to you a situation which clearly involves either physical or sexual abuse or serious neglect. If either of these things happen, you must act, even if the abusive parent is your neighbour or your friend. Call the Child Abuse Helpline. They will ask you for your name, but will not disclose it to the person you are complaining about. People often don’t call because they’re afraid of embarrassment or even harassment if the person reported on finds out. What is more important, your embarrassment or a child’s safety?
What about situations which are not clearly abusive, but are upsetting? Children are going to misbehave in certain situations regardless of what the parent does, leaving the poor parent at their wits’ end. If you’re the onlooker, be careful not to judge the parent on the basis of the child’s behavior. Children, especially between ages two and six, are not made for long shopping trips, standing in lineups, or meeting tons of strangers, and they tend to rebel under those circumstances, which are sometimes unavoidable. My middle son had regular tantrums at grocery store checkouts. One checkout clerk gave me a dirty look one day when my son was having a tantrum. The next day (same checkout, same clerk, same mother, same child, now in a pleasant mood) she praised me for being such a good parent, as she told me about the rotten mother whose son had behaved so badly the previous day! Once he lay on the floor in a high-class restaurant, right in the way so that people tripped over him, and refused to get up. That was the last time we ate out (other than at McDonald’s) in years.
How do you time your child out with four people ahead of you in the grocery line? How do you get your child to quiet down without giving in to his demand for candy? You’re in an impossible situation. And, let’s face it, sometimes when we don’t know what to do, we do the wrong thing. We yell, we threaten, some of us spank, or we give in and spoil the child. When that happens, we need help. A stranger can be helpful if he or she blames neither the parent nor the child, just does something to ease the situation. A few months ago I was in a long lineup at the bank, and a woman ahead of me in the line was having a terrible time with her young daughter, who was clearly really bored and was acting up, running around and making noise. The situation escalated until the parent was, in my judgment, behaving quite inappropriately, yelling at the child and telling her how bad and thoughtless she was. Not surprisingly, the child acted worse and worse. It wasn’t a situation that could be reported to the authorities, but it was upsetting enough that I decided to intervene. The next question was : How? If I’d confronted the mother on her inappropriate behavior, it would have just added to the scene. So I spoke to the child. I told her that Mommy was really tired, and it would help Mommy feel better if she were able to just be quiet for a few minutes more. She was surprised at being addressed by a stranger, but was delighted to think that, rather than being the bad child she was being called, she could actually help her mother. She quieted down immediately, and the mother gave me a grateful look. I had recognized her dilemma, hadn’t put her down, but had supported her by helping with the child. Some parents might not have appreciated it, but this one did. On other occasions I have smiled at crying babies in lineups, and this has stopped them crying. Holly Nathan says “Surely parents and children in distress could benefit from someone offering to hold a crying child, asking a question, donating their time, providing support.”
Yesterday I decided not to intervene in a different situation. I was going towards a store, when a mother came out, dragging her son of about eight by the hand, and yelling at him in an accusing voice “Did you learn something? I think you learned, something, didn’t you?” Her whole manner bothered me, as it was clearly diminishing the child’s self-esteem. The same words in a quiet tone wouldn’t have bothered me. But I didn’t know what had happened. Had he stolen from the store, and been required to return it? That would be an appropriate consequence, even though the mother’s rubbing it in wasn’t helpful. I couldn’t intervene without knowing more. And to intervene I would have had to stop them and ask questions, something I had no right to do. If she’d been hitting him, it would have been my obligation to intervene in some way or report the matter, but she wasn’t, she was just yelling. These situations make us all uncomfortable, but we have to learn to just live with them. If that parent had been my neighbor, or the mother of my child’s classmate, perhaps I could get to know her and invite her to a parenting course. Many of us shy away from parents whose parenting is not what we would like. But if we avoid these people, or tell our kids to stay away from their acting-out kids, we reduce their opportunities to learn new ways of behaving. Very few people want to parent abusively; they just don’t know any better. If those of us who know better remain connected to these people, and communicate support rather than judgment, we’ll have the opportunities to help them and their children.