|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 here."
- 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
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
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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