Parenting Advice Column
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.
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 focusing 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 gently!
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 situation.
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.
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