I probably already know your answer, but what is the best thing to
say to someone you have seen hit the hands of a 10-month-old infant? The
baby was crawling, and went into a room where, apparently, she was not
supposed to go. So, her hands were swatted. I don't mean a tap, either,
she was swatted, twice.
Thanks, Linda Bailey
Thank you for asking this important question, and for looking for
ways to help when a child is being hurt in public.
Have you read my two articles on this subject?
Intervening on Behalf of a
Child in a Public Place - Part 1: Is It Our Business?
Intervening on Behalf of a
Child in a Public Place - Part 2: What Can We Do?
The type of situation you describe is a tough one to respond to. In
fact, I'm still not sure how to handle this type of abuse. Once when I
saw a father lightly spanking his daughter (about age 5), I said,
"Children are not for hitting." He stopped and asked me what
I'd said. I repeated it and added, "And children are people
too." He stopped hitting her, and mumbled something about how he
had "just been playing". I said, "Children are not for
hitting, even in play." We then had to leave the area, and I'm not
sure how much he took in, but his daughter was wide-eyed, and I like to
think that she learned something important that will carry over when she
is a parent.
When I first began to intervene in these situations, I was focussing
on protecting the child, and in some situations was a bit rough with the
parent. I have since come to believe that the ideal intervention would
be done in a way that also shows compassion for the parent. After all,
it is unfair and inconsistent to tell a parent harshly to treat a child
However, there are times when a child is being hurt, physically or
emotionally, and our primary responsibility will be to stop the abuse.
We may not be creative enough at that moment to get the message across
with full empathy for the parent. I have come to believe that at those
times, it is more important to act, even if our action antagonizes the
parent. In a quieter moment, he or she may reflect more openly on our
message. And as my own example showed, the message to the child can be
powerful. I have also learned that even though I may make mistakes, the
mistake that pains me the most later is having ignored an abusive
This doesn't mean that we should ignore the possible effect on the
parent. In fact, we need to take that part of the picture very
seriously. I'm planning to add a forum on intervention on my web site,
to share ideas on what works, what doesn't work, and how we can present
our messages in a way that will be heard.
Getting back to your specific question, I witnessed exactly the same
thing once in a playground. A mother was swatting her 2-year-old
constantly. I did nothing. Several other parents present were disturbed
by this and did nothing. This was years ago, and I still feel guilty.
Yet I am still not sure what I should have done. The one thing I know is
that ignoring it gave the parent the message that she was right to treat
her daughter in this way, and I have worried ever since as to what this
child might have experienced over the years.
One thing that has worked for me is to share empathy for the parent's
immediate situation: "It can be so worrisome when a baby goes into
a place that might be dangerous" and then I have added something
like the following: "I used to think that punishment was the only
approach to use with a baby who couldn't talk yet, but then I read an
interesting book that showed me other ways to respond." Then I talk
about the book, which diverts attention away from the parent, and may
interest her in reading it. But that's on my good days. I don't always
intervene, and I don't always intervene in the most compassionate way.
All we can do is try.
Thank you for being concerned about this baby. I hope my thoughts
have been helpful. If you do intervene in the future, please let me know
how it goes.