A few months ago I wrote a post about a disturbing parenting scene I observed at a grocery store: “Give Them What They Deserve.” I wrote it because my heart hurt for the little boy who had been treated with such disrespect and disregard. I wrote it because it felt like a way to help, to respond to the careless parenting that happens so often.
My post was viewed by thousands and I received a lot of feedback in emails and comments. A lot of people had experienced something similar. A lot of people were as saddened by the lack of respect for children as I was. Most people thanked me for my efforts to make a positive change.
“You should have said something to the mother and grandmother!”
“If it bothered you, why didn’t you take action?”
These comments and others like them were in my thoughts for a long time. After I got past my initial defensiveness, I realized that they were asking very valid questions. Why didn’t I say something or do something when I saw a child being treated so disrespectfully?
A good question. A more difficult answer. But I’ve had some time to think about it, observe similar poor parenting displays, and try out some different responses and action steps. It isn’t always easy to know what to do when you find yourself in a situation like I did at the grocery store, but I’ve found some ways to make a bad situation better.
I didn’t say anything that day because I didn’t know what to say. If the ball hadn’t been out of reach, I could have given it to the boy. The grandmother knew why the boy was crying, but she didn’t care. Both caretakers were obviously upset, absorbed in their own tasks and agendas, and probably embarrassed by the child’s behavior.
I watched with a heavy heart but I didn’t know what to say. I surely didn’t want to cause a scene that likely wouldn’t have helped the child and would have only added more anger and embarrassment to an already awkward situation.
Sometimes poor parenting situations like the one I observed are the anomalous result of a particularly frazzled parent reaching the end of their rope on a rough day. Sometimes they are regular occurrences resulting from misguided views about children, their needs and behaviors. Either way, it can be uncomfortable to intervene.
It is possible, however, to make a positive difference when you find yourself observing a parent without patience and a child who isn’t getting the respect they deserve. I’ve put all of the following actions to the test with positive results every single time.
(Note: The following suggestions are not intended as solutions for child abuse. If you observe a child being abused there is definitely a different protocol to follow and more serious action needs to be taken. My suggestions are intended more for “poor parenting” situations.)
- Withhold judgement. This is extremely important, albeit difficult sometimes. If you approach the situation from a holier-than-thou position, your efforts will feel like an attack. If you want to improve the situation, make sure you are not adding hostility and judgement to the mix.
- Empathize. Parenting can be tough. Sometimes it may be easier to see things from the perspective of the innocent child, but it helps to try on the parent’s shoes for a minute too before you get involved. Even the best of parents have said the wrong thing, responded carelessly, or overreacted at some point in time.
- Identify with the parent first. As kindly as possible, let the parent or caretaker know that you are observing without judging. Saying something like, “This looks like a real challenge,” or “I remember when my kid was that age,” or “It looks like you’ve got your hands full” can sometimes be enough to diffuse the situation.
- Identify with the child. Once you have connected a bit with the parent and you can tell that the situation isn’t going to explode into hostilities and defensive tactics, try connecting with the child. Often a smile or a wink can make a big difference. Sometimes asking the child what is wrong can help both the child and the parent move to the next level. Show the parent what to say, how to listen.
- Bring some positive energy to the situation. And if you can make it to this step, this is the most powerful. Try to remind the parent of how important their child is, how much they love them. “They are still cute even when they’re angry.” “These years will be gone before you know it. They are such a treasure.” Let the child know that you see them and respect them. “I am sorry you are having a rough time.” “Is there something you were trying to say? Something you needed?” It may not change their lives, but it may change the moment. It may even change more than one moment for that parent and that child. It’s worth a try.