I got into a conversation on social media about what to do when we see a parent about to hit or hitting their child in public. This post contains my thoughts on the subject. I don't think there is one "right" way to handle a situation like this, and we all take different approaches to a problem. My way may work better for me than it would for someone else, but I just want to offer this as a possible approach. Some folks would openly confront the parent, but I think that could potentially have a devastating backlash effect for the child later on. Here's another possible way:
I know it's frustrating to witness an adult brutalizing a little child, and it's understandable that a we would feel VERY angry with that parent and want to DO something!!! However, unleashing our own feelings of anger is very unlikely to offer long-term help to the child who is being brutalized. That's because when a person feels attacked, they tend to want to attack back. They harden their position, and that does not allow them to hear what is being said to them and think critically about it.
So, what can one person do when we see a child being hit or about to be hit? It depends on our goal. If my goal is to release my own bad feelings about what I'm seeing, it may make me feel better to go over to the adult and yell at them and shame them for behaving so badly. It may make me feel better to let that person "have it."
However, if my goal is to help the child, then I may have to find a way to help the parent. Here's why: because, after I leave with MY feelings released, there will still be that humiliated, frustrated, UNSKILLED parent who will take her shame and humiliation out on the one person who is least capable of dealing with that: her little child.
So, if the goal is to do SOMETHING to end the cycle of abuse, we COULD:
1. Find a way to have compassion for the struggling parent. That parent learned to be a parent from her parents who learned parenting from their parents, and on and on and on. That screaming mother in the supermarket was once a child being screaming at by her mother. When we peel back the layers, we are looking at a grown-up who is really a wounded child now carrying her own heavy burden of pain. When you see that, can you find a way to hold that frightened and wounded child in compassion? Just that one different way of looking at that situation could possibly change the energy, ever so subtly.... BUT significantly. It is possible that no one has ever held her in compassion before!!! Imagine what that must feel like!
Even if we did nothing else, that could be an opener to some healing and create a space where a shift could happen. And, it's better than participating in and perpetuating a cycle of shame and brutality.
2. This next step takes a LOT of bravery. That would be making eye contact with the mother and offering compassion. It could just be in our attitude, or it could be in words: "Looks like you're having a REALLY rough day!!! I know how hard that can be!" Everyone has at least one rough day, so everyone could (if they really try) find a way to feel compassion and empathy for one who's going through it. Sometimes, that's all it takes to defuse the ticking time bomb and prevent violence!
Sometimes that won't help, but sometimes it will. The important thing is that if our offer of compassion is NOT received well, not to take it personally (see step #1). Sometimes, we may offer compassion, and the mother will just dissolve into tears. I have seen that happen.
When we charge in and bring our own feelings of rage into the fray, we cannot possibly be helpful!!! And, it's really about helping kids, right? By doing this, we won't always succeed, but we have a better chance of helping this way than we do the other way. Because, that mother and child won't always have a person like us nearby to intervene.
I hope that makes sense.