|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
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
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.