|She is adorable, with a mass of brown curls and
large blue eyes; she is about three. She has just learned about
pockets. She reaches out to take a small item from a shelf, and
holds it over her pocket. She studies the item for a moment, and
then lets it fall into her pocket. Plop! She gives a satisfied
little laugh. She reaches into her pocket to try this again. But
this is inside a store, and the item -- which costs a quarter --
has not been paid for.
Her father, standing nearby, has been watching this incident
with growing fury. Enraged, he rushes over to the little girl,
snatches the object from her hand, and shouts at her, "If you
ever steal something again, I'll break your fingers!". The
horror of this threat collides with her laughter, and she stands
there, cowering, silent, and afraid.
The scene just described is, unfortunately, not fiction. It
took place in a large department store in a medium-sized city in
Canada. Although this example may be extreme, it is not unique;
both physical and emotional abuses take place daily to many
children in our society. One does not need to venture out in
public long before hearing threats, impatient commands, statements
of mistrust, and angry words directed at children, and deaf ears
turned to crying infants.
When abuse happens behind closed doors, it is seldom apparent
to others until it becomes severe and repetitive, or physical or
sexual abuse is discovered. But when it happens in public, we have
an opportunity to intervene. How, then, can we as observers
respond in a way that is helpful to both parent and child, when we
witness such abuse?
As none of us is a perfect parent, it may be most helpful to
consider what type of response we ourselves would prefer if we
were observed treating our children in a less than compassionate
way. From this perspective, the following pattern may be useful
when encountering such a situation in a public place:
- We need to show empathy for the parent: "It can really
be challenging when children are little and still learning
- We might then share something of our own - or our child's -
experience: "I remember when I was four and my parents
saw me pick something up, but I didn't really understand about
- We should then empathize with the child: "It must
frighten you to see your father get so angry." We can
then add: "This is a nice toy. It must be hard for
you to have to leave it here."
- Finally, we can offer a suggestion: "My child finds it
helpful to keep a wish list for things we can't buy yet. You
might find that helpful, too."
While it may be difficult to think of the perfect response in
the heat of the moment, the sheer act of standing up for the child
can have a significant impact on the child herself, even if the
intervention causes the parent to become angry or defensive. Many
adults in counseling sessions still remember vividly the one time
that a stranger stepped in on their behalf, and how much that
meant - that someone cared, and that the child's feelings
of fear, confusion, and anger were understood and accepted.
We might consider responding as we would if we were to come
upon a close friend in a similar situation. We would assume the
best, assume that this situation was atypical and related to a
stressful time in the parent's life. The first step of expressing
empathy for the parent will maximize our chances of being heard,
and show the parent that we believe in his good intentions. This
approach offers us the best chance to avoid antagonizing the
parent into further abusive behavior.
Yet even if the parent does not respond to the intervention in
a fully positive way, it does not necessarily mean that our
message went unheard. In a quieter moment, he may remember and
reconsider what he was unable to accept at the time.
Intervention can be difficult, especially in a society where
there are taboos against commenting on a stranger's parenting
skills. For this reason, even those adults who recognize abusive
treatment and empathize with the child may choose to pass by in
silence. Unfortunately, walking past a distraught child also gives
a message. It tells the child that no one cares about her
suffering, and it implies to the parent that we approve of the
Although the father in our story meant to give his daughter a
worthwhile moral lesson, his response to her is, ironically,
certain to lower her self-esteem and make actual theft a real
possibility. How could the little girl know that his words were
only a threat no sane person would carry out? She could not know,
and until someone speaks out on her behalf, she may never know.
Psychiatric case histories clearly show a direct correlation
between the amount of abuse and punishment suffered in childhood
and the degree of psychopathic behavior in later years: today's
psychopathic adults were yesterday's abused children. We cannot
take a time machine back to help yesterday's children, but we can
help the children of today to become responsible adults of
tomorrow who will treat their children with respect and empathy.
We can "bear witness" in public to the children. We can
let them know we value them, and that we do not believe they
should be mistreated. If the community does not make it clear that
child abuse is unacceptable, abusive practices will only continue
from one generation to the next. If we are careful to intervene in
a way that shows empathy for the parent as well, we have done the
job we intended.
The little girl's fingers were not touched, but her vision of
the world she lives in will never be the same. Perhaps one day,
someone will come forth and speak out on her behalf - and do so in
a way that her father can also hear the words.
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