By Dr. Monique Higginbotham
Dr. Higginbotham is a pediatrician specializing in child abuse
We have all had this experience. We are in a public place and a parent is disciplining their child. As the situation escalates to a fever pitch, we wonder if we should intervene or just ‘mind our own business.’ What should we say to a parent, who has clearly lost their patience with a child?
I found myself in this very situation one evening in the grocery store. While gazing in the prepared foods case, I overheard a woman yelling. I turned around to see a woman whose face was contorted in an angry scowl. She glared at her son seated in the shopping cart. He appeared to be about 2 years old, and he gazed up at her with big, questioning eyes.
Just then she started hitting him, for what rule infraction I was not sure. Pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap! Smacking him on his arms and legs, whatever limb she could reach. It stopped me in my tracks. “Whoa – what the – hunh? Did anyone else see that?” I thought, as I looked around at other shoppers. Surely someone else shared my concern. No one appeared to notice. People looked the other way. “Perhaps I’m over-reacting,” I thought, hoping it was an isolated incident.
Still, I had to be sure my assessment was correct. I trailed her down the next aisle. I couldn’t help it; my heart was already broken for this child. Then, pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap-pap! Another barrage of strikes was unleashed as the child cowered and whimpered in the cart. I thought, “What could he have done to upset her so?”
Take a 2-year-old to the grocery store, and they are going to reach for things on the shelves, drop things on the floor, and grab things out of the cart. Their favorite words are “stop,” “no” and “mine.” They’re 2, and that’s how they roll. It’s not called “terrible twos” for nothing. It is a challenge for any parent.
Sure enough, during her barrage of hits, he swung back at her. It appeared to be in self-defense, but it only made her angrier. She hit him even harder, as if to emphasize her disapproval. PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP! “YOU DON’T HIT ME.” Then his shoe fell off. She yelled, “Didn’t I tell you not to take your shoes OFF?!!” She shoved his little shoe back on his foot. Now I could see his tears. I looked around again, clutching my empty grocery basket. No one else seemed to be concerned this was happening. I could clearly see this mother was using force on this child that appeared way out of proportion to the situation. She was at the end of her rope. I knew I had to intervene.
Now, I have been told, when in this type of situation, the proper thing to do is to say something empathetic –even complimentary- to the parent. For example: “Children can be such a handful in the store, and oh my, you have such a handsome little one!” This type of statement is intended to interrupt and de-escalate the situation, while at the same time support the parent.
My mind was racing just to put two words together, let alone an empathetic sentence. Complimentary was way out of the question, because anger was welling up inside me. This child did not deserve this type of treatment. I became concerned that perhaps this child lived in an abusive household.
I walked briskly to the front of the store, hoping to see a manager behind the customer service desk, or a security guard. Just any authority figure would do, and then I would not have to be the one to intervene. There was no one! Should I call the police, or Child Protective Services? Was it warranted for this type of situation? By the time anyone arrived, she would be gone. Should I follow her out of the store and get her license plate number? I didn’t know what to do.
I saw the mother turn the corner with her cart, coming toward the front of the store. She got in line to check out. So I plopped a few random items in my basket, and I got behind her in line. As the cashier began ringing up her items, she walked to the end of the counter to bag her items. Then he did it. He took his shoe off. She glared at him. He stared back. As she raised her arm, he raised his too, and he hit her in the face with his shoe. She let him have it, another barrage of hits – PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP-PAP – in full view of me, the cashiers, and customers, and tears were flowing down the child’s cheeks.
Ultimately, my emotions took over. In the midst of her striking the child, I blurted out: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!!! STOP HITTING HIM!!!!” She stopped, hand in mid-air. She looked up at me with that same angry contorted face. What she said to me for the next minute, is not fit for the printed word. I repeated, “Stop hitting him” in a firm, but much smaller voice. I felt as if every eye in the entire store was on her, and this would cause her to see the error in her ways. She had indeed stopped hitting him. Mission accomplished. I stood there frozen, choking on her icy words, yet content. Surely, other people in the store must have been relieved that someone had spoken up on the child’s behalf.
What a scene it was. Satisfied that she had put me in my proper place, she finished packing her bags, and stormed out of the store.
As it turned out, during this entire scene, every eye in the store was on ME, not her. I looked up at my cashier. He lowered his gaze, shook his head and said, “I just work here.” Then, what happened next, I didn’t expect. Right on cue and almost in unison, an angry chorus of cashiers and customers alike turned their wrath and disgust on me. Here are examples of what people said to me in the checkout line:
“You should mind your own business,” someone said. “You don’t know what she is going through.
One woman said, “You should help some real children who need help, like some starving children.”
One woman referred to the shoe incident as a grave sign of disrespect – how dare he hit her with his shoe – this woman said, “She did what she was supposed to do when your child disrespects you.”
One young man nearby said, “If you don’t stop it now [the bad behavior] it will only get worse as he gets older…and he could get locked up.” This young man proceeded to tell me very earnestly that young boys have to be “taught early,” because one day they might encounter the police, who are not as understanding as a mother. This young man walked me to my car, and I was grateful to him. Still, two years old is very early and what exactly is being “taught” by hitting him?
I was stunned by the responses. Not a single person thought it was wrong for this mother to hit her son forcefully and repeatedly until he cowered and cried. Everyone believed the hitting was for his benefit – it was the right thing to do – and one day, it might keep him out of the criminal justice system. I had no right to judge, or intervene while this mother disciplined her child.
What do these responses say about our society? What does this scenario say about a society that condones corporal punishment of children? When does corporal punishment become child abuse?
I believe violence begets violence. I believe what I witnessed in that grocery store was violence against a child. It may not have met the current state definition of child abuse, but it crossed the line of civility and acceptable parenting. Maybe our attitudes toward corporal punishment, and our definitions of child abuse, need to change. Clearly the mother I encountered in the grocery store was distressed. She needed support. I fear her son will be hurt again, repeatedly, and possibly in a manner worse than what I witnessed in a public place. April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Know the resources in your community. Report suspected child abuse when you have a concern. Reach out to a parent or child in distress. Just speak up. We stand in silence at our own peril.