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Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a Public Place Part 1: Is It Our Business?

We see it everywhere. A tired parent, at the end of a stressful day, loses it - and a child suffers. We'd like to help if we could, but we hesitate. Is it our business to intervene? And if we do, will we embarrass and antagonize the parent, imperiling the child even more? Will we make the mistake of harshly telling a parent to be gentle with her children? Isn't it more tactful to walk past without comment? After all, none of us is a perfect parent.

There seems to be a common assumption in our society that intervening on behalf of a child in a public place is necessarily hurtful and critical. It need be neither. There is a world of difference between officious, hurtful criticism ("How dare you treat your child like that?") and helpful intervention done in a caring way ("It can be really hard to meet their needs when you're so busy. Is there anything I can do to help?") There is nothing inherent in intervention that requires one to be offensive. The sheer act of offering assistance to the parent, or comfort to the child, need have no offending qualities at all.

I have successfully intervened by offering to find a mother's groceries, helping a child pick up dropped toys, and helping a mother dress a tired toddler. All of these women were genuinely grateful, thanked me for helping, and immediately began treating their children with greater compassion. I always carry colorful stickers, which I have found can work magic for distracting a tired, bored, or fussy child whose parents may just be too exhausted to be patient. When the child is happier from this unexpected gift (not just the sticker but the gentle attention and eye contact) the parents often relax and can even be a bit energized from the experience. We can intervene in a positive way, and give the message that we care about both the parent and child.

Many in our society make a second common assumption, that the choice we have is to give a message to the parent (and the child) or to give no message at all. But "giving no message" is not, in fact, one of our choices. We give as clear a message by walking past a distraught child as we do by intervening. Walking past, we give the message to the child that no one cares about his suffering, and to the parents we give the message that we approve of their actions.

I have been asked if I advocate intervention in every case of potential abusiveness, including, presumably, that of a merely sad-looking child; of course 1 do not. But there is a big difference between a child crying for no apparent reason and one who is crying because he has just been hit hard, insulted, or completely ignored. But even if a baby Is crying for mysterious reasons. the parent might still welcome an offer of assistance. A simple offer to help, spoken pleasantly, is nonjudgmental and, in my experience, always welcomed. How unfortunate that the taboo against public intervention has prevented parents from helping each other in stressful situations.

Babies cry for many reasons; we should not assume that the parent is at fault with only circumstantial evidence. Yet my friends and I have witnessed some really harmful acts: slapping, hitting, shoving, arm-yanking, pinning against a wall, severe verbal abuse, negative labeling, hurtful comparisons to siblings, and so on. These children accept this treatment because they are too helpless and inexperienced to stand up for themselves. Should we, who are older and wiser, simply walk past an obviously abusive situation? At exactly what point should we step in? Should we wait until the child is the victim of a severe physical assault? But assault takes many forms. Just because emotional abuse leaves no outward scars should not excuse us from helping these children. Those of us who can recognize damaging treatment have an obligation to step in (and again, this can be done in a compassionate and helpful way).

There is one more reason for intervening that Is nearly always overlooked in these discussions, but which I consider to be the most significant: the lifelong effect it can have on the child. Many adults in counseling sessions still recall with gratitude the one time that a stranger stepped in on their behalf, and how much it meant: that someone cared, and that the child's feelings of anger and frustration were recognized and accepted. These adults have stated to me (and to other psychologists)that this one intervention changed their lives and gave them hope. Are we to bypass the opportunity to make such a profound difference in the life of a child?

Even in the unfortunate - and hopefully rare - case where the parent is offended, the intervention may still act as a reminder to the parent to be more attentive to the nature of their interactions with their child.

Psychiatric case histories clearly show that today's psychopathic adults were yesterday's hurt children. There is no time machine we can take to help yesterday's children. But we can help today's children to become secure and responsible adults who will treat their own children with dignity, love, and compassion.

Continue to part 2 >

Portuguese translation

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