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Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a Public Place Part 3: A Counselor Intervenes

I was standing at the counter of the rustic old hotel, paying for a much-needed massage, when the front door banged open behind me. The few people standing around the small lobby turned toward the noise. A young father walked in rapidly, pulling his son by the arm and saying, "You're gonna get it for this, just you wait!" He scowled, staring straight ahead. The boy, about four years old, swung from his father's hand like a rag doll, his small feet hardly touching the floor. His tear-smudged face was punctuated by a mouth opened to an "O", but soundless.

They disappeared around a corner into the men's room. In the lobby people looked at each other as time and talk were suspended. Then the whack, whack, whack began. As the boy cried out, his father's voice came through the thin wall, harsh and unforgiving. "I'll give you something to cry about!" Whack, whack, whack.

By the time they came back to the lobby and headed for the restaurant, I had collected my massage ticket. I turned from the counter, knees shaking, my throat closed against a sob. The people in the lobby had returned to their conversations except for an older woman whose eyes met mine in understanding. My face must have shown my feelings.

I took a deep breath and returned to the restaurant. There at a table against one wall sat the father next to his boy. Across from them was a young woman. A little girl about three sat next to her. A photograph taken at that moment would have revealed the father studying the menu, his wife looking worriedly at her son, the boy digging his chin into his jacket and the little girl weeping silently. I took a moment to calm myself, then walked behind the father's chair. I knelt down and spoke in his ear, just loud enough for those at the table to hear.

"I know this is none of my business," I started. "I was in the lobby when you and your boy came through to the men's room." Taking another deep breath, "I need to tell you how I felt when I heard you hitting him." Here I looked at the young mother. Her eyes were stricken. When she saw me glance at her, she looked down. The little girl leaned into her, hugging her arm with one hand, wiping her nose with the other.

"I stopped breathing, I felt my knees start to buckle. I remembered all the times when someone bigger and stronger than I was hurt me in the same way your boy sounded hurt. And I too was made to be ashamed for crying."

Here the boy looked at me for the first time. He seemed startled, as if not expecting to have a stranger be on his side. I saw the importance of the moment register on his face.

His father brought us all back to reality. "You're right", he said gruffly, "It's none of your business."

"I know. That's what I said. I also know I couldn't live with myself unless I told you how I was affected by what you did." I stood up, touching him on the shoulder. I smiled at the young wife and walked through the lobby. Once out in the cold mountain air, I heard the sob finally escape my throat. The tightness left my chest. I took another deep breath and headed for my car, feeling remarkably stronger.

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Mary Maurer Lansing is a licensed marriage and family counselor practicing in Portland, Oregon.