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Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a Public Place Part 2: What Can We Do?

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:

  1. We need to show empathy for the parent: "It can really be challenging when children are little and still learning about stores."
  2. 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 stealing."
  3. 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."
  4. 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 parent's behavior.

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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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