|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:
- We need to show empathy for the parent: "It can really be challenging when children are little and
still learning about stores."
- 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."
- 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
- 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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