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Is It Time to Change the Law?

Seen recently at a shopping mall: a young man in his twenties was wheeling a shopping cart through the crowd. His three- or four-year-old son, sitting in the cart, was crying, shouting, and screaming hysterically, and continued to do so until they left the mall some fifteen minutes later. No one asked this man what the trouble was. No one offered to help him calm the child, no one- not even me, a writer on children's issues who has focused for several years on this very taboo against helping other people's children. Perhaps our society's unfair expectations of perfect behavior by children interfered with the father's ability to help his child in public; in any case, he pushed the cart through the crowds, apparently oblivious to the child's needs.

Shopkeepers emerged from their stores, and joined those of us who were viewing this scene with concern, yet said nothing. We didn't know what message to give, so we gave none. Or did we? Silence gives messages too: "We don't care about your suffering. Your father is doing the right thing to ignore your cries. You should ignore your own child's feelings when you become a father." Worst of all, silence gives the message: "You deserve to suffer. You're not worth our time and attention." Yet many of us must have wondered if he were seriously injured or ill, or even- as it occurred to me later- being kidnapped. For how else would we expect a kidnapped child to behave, but with tears, shouts, and screams?

In our society, crying children are often ignored (wouldn't all of us have responded immediately had this most unhappy person been an adult?) It would have been nice if this young child had calmly explained what he needed. But a child who is ill, angry, frustrated or very frightened cannot make such statements; he can only cry until someone responds or until he gives up in despair. And we must not underestimate the seriousness of this despair: children, in their innocence, assume that we, as his parents and other adult figures, are correct, that whatever we do is what we ought to be doing. If we do nothing, the child can only conclude that he is unloved because he is unlovable. It is not within his capabilities to conclude that we are ignoring his cries simply because we are too busy, tired, or afraid of hurting his parent's feelings.

Crying disturbs us, but it is meant to be disturbing; it is nature's way of ensuring that helpless human beings will receive the care and concern they deserve to have. As Jean Liedloff wrote in The Continuum Concept1, a child's cry "is precisely as serious as it sounds." Although prolonged crying and screaming can be very frustrating for parents and other adults, a child is simply too young and inexperienced to handle the cause of the crying, whatever it may be. Clearly, it is the responsibility of adults to meet a child's needs for nurture, physical care, security, and love- not the child's responsibility to meet our needs for peace and quiet at the mall.

Stressful though it may be, a child's cries should be seen not as a power struggle between child and parent (or parent and concerned stranger) but as an important signal for help, a gift from nature to insure that children receive the care they need and deserve.

In several European countries, it is illegal to hit or even bully children; it would be considered callous, unfair and dangerous to ignore the tears of a frightened four-year-old. Unfortunately, we don't have such laws yet in North America. But there is hope: the international organization EPOCH (End Punishment of Children) is working to bring about legal and social change. The group has several goals: to ensure that children will be entitled to the same protections against assault that adults now receive; to broaden the public's awareness of the harmful, long-term repercussions of physical punishment and its potential to escalate into child abuse; and to provide a widespread educational program that presents and encourages positive alternative methods of gaining cooperation from children.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.