I was at the mall. As I wandered through the food court looking for somewhere to sit, I saw a man and a woman at a table next to me. I’m not sure what happened in the lead up to this moment, but he leaned in and sneered, ‘you are so ungrateful.’ The woman looked embarrassed and upset. He snatched the drink out of her hand and took a sip. She was on the verge of tears. ‘Don’t cry. That’s it we’re leaving.’ He quickly grabbed their things, grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the exit. She was asking him to stop and looked distressed. It was awful to watch.
What would your reaction have been?
I want to change direction here.
Recently I published a story on my facebook page about something I saw at the park. It was an adult’s behaviour towards a disabled child that I found to be upsetting. The scene was a catalyst for my own thought process about how vulnerable children are more susceptible to controlling and abusive behaviour, and that we need to advocate for the rights of all children to be treated respectfully. The story was met with some push back and some upset which I think is really healthy and it made me reflect on what my intentions around sharing were. Sadly, I could see that the message I wanted to send was lost on some people who couldn’t see past an adult they felt was being unfairly exposed. I think my reasons are really important.
So now I want to revisit the opening story and I am going to replace the characters.
I was at the mall. As I wandered through the food court looking for somewhere to sit, I saw an adult and a child at a table next to me. I’m not sure what happened in the lead up to this moment, but the adult leaned in and sneered, ‘you are so ungrateful.’ The child looked embarrassed and upset. The adult snatched the drink out of the child’s hand and took a sip. They were on the verge of tears. ‘Don’t cry. That’s it we’re leaving.’ The adult quickly grabbed their things, grabbed the child’s arm and dragged them toward the exit. They were asking the adult to stop and looked distressed. It was awful to watch.
These are fictitious stories. When the story featured two adults, I think most people would have felt deep concern for the woman and considered the actions of the man to be aggressive and very troubling. But what about the second version? Same events, but the characters are an adult and a child. I think the reactions to the tale for some people will look very different. Did you think that the adult had been pushed to their limits? Had a bad day? Needs more support?
All of these things could be true. But they could be equally true for the man in the first story. We don’t allow this to excuse adult behaviour that affects other adults. What we do allow is two parallel conversations to exist. The first being that abusive behaviour is unacceptable regardless of its triggers. The second being, access to mental health support, breaking abuse cycles and programs aimed at teaching healthy emotional reactions are all really important and they need more air time, more funding and more action. Basically, condemning the behaviour and advocating for more support and resources to prevent the cause of the behaviour are two things that can coexist. Yet rarely is this the case for parenting. Except in the case of extreme abuse, criticising the actions of an adult towards a child in a public forum is met primarily with disdain.
The mental health of parents and support structures for parents are SO IMPORTANT. It is without a doubt an area that needs more attention and focus. However, I disagree that this advocacy cannot happen alongside a conversation that seeks to raise awareness about the effect of emotional dysfunction and emotional abuse on children and what this behaviour can look like. In the same way that domestic violence does not just look like fists and bruises, abuse towards children does not just look like physical violence.
Sometimes raising awareness will look like positive information about alternatives for parents to use. And sometimes this will look like identifying instances of behaviour from adults that deeply affect children and are generally accepted by society turning a blind eye. I disagree that telling these stories is seeking to shame adults. This is not the aim and rarely the result when there is little identifying information. And I reject the argument that we need to accept poor treatment of children as a ‘different parenting philosophy.’ Because children are people. Just like the woman in the first scenario is a person.
I understand the backlash. These stories play at people’s discomfort. Perhaps they identify similarities with their own bad days. Perhaps they empathise with the adult. After all, most of us are trying our best. Perhaps they reflect on their own mistakes, because we ALL make them. But accessing that discomfort is important. Asking ourselves why we identify and empathise with the actions of the adult in the second story, rather than immediately advocating for the child is an incredibly important process.
The thing that I find most troubling is this assertion, and unfortunately it is true, that some adults don’t have the information they need to treat children in a kind way. Many of these same people waiting to be enlightened would condemn the exact same behaviour if it was used against an adult. The breakdown being, children are not yet people. And when we constantly side with the adult, when we always give the benefit of the doubt, when we prevent the dissemination of information about what abuse or its precursors can look like for fear of shaming, what we are actually doing is perpetuating this idea that children will cope, children are ‘less than’ and the feelings of adults are more important. So the cycle of marginalising children continues.
When you read an anecdote about a child and a parent, and your immediate reaction is:
‘This is a story that shouldn’t be told.’
‘We don’t know the full story.’
‘We can’t take emotional abuse on face value’
‘The writer is judgmental. They think they are perfect’
Sit and access that discomfort. What comes out of that internal work? Is it shame about your own actions, which we all carry in one form or another? A mirror to our own imperfections is hard to look at, but also useful in how we decide to step forward. Is it defensiveness for those that we care about who we feel are just doing their best, even though we can see the negative fall out for the children around them? Maybe this internal dialogue will open up a conversation about how that adult can be better supported so that the children are protected. Maybe it will help us think about strategies we can use when we are triggered in the future.
Enforcing a code of silence on parenting further marginalises children. We need to support each other to do better, celebrate our successes, but we also need to create awareness about what both healthy and unhealthy relationships with children look like. It starts to build a dialogue around what we as a society will and will not accept when it comes to children. It could be that someone who sees elements of themselves in a story, suddenly starts to question what they think of as negative behaviour. And if it helps people to reflect, they may then seek out the information they need to make a change. That is important enough for me.
I 100% agree with what you have written there. What’s more, I read your original post on Facebook when you shared it the other day. I thought your tone was one of concern, more than shaming.
I really felt that momet of empathy for that child as you described what you saw. There are times in everyone’s life that they have felt shamed, controlled without reason, etc. I think it’s those feelings we need to tap into to see things from the perspective of children.
And you are so right – if it would feel really wrong watching an adult speaking that way to another adult, then it should feel wrong if we see an adult speaking to a child that way.
I witnessed a similar incident the other day while I was out for sushi with my toddler. I could clearly tell (from her rather loud comments) that she was feeling extremely stressed by a family situation. Perhaps she went home and apologised to her children when she got home, but regardless of that, the message we need to be putting out into the world is that it’s not okay to speak to anyone like this. I’m not perfect – I have shouted at my son sometimes, and expressed anger towards him. The key thing is that I explain to him that the way I spoke to him was not okay, that I’m deeply sorry, and that I’m putting strategies in place to change my behaviour.
The question we should ask ourselves before interfering is what affect our interference would have. Most likely, the parent’s behavior wouldn’t change except for this specific time. But if we don’t step up, we are reinforcing the child’s belief that their parent’s behavior is acceptable and that their rights are in the hands of their parent, meaning that even if the child can tell that the behavior is unacceptable, now they also understand that nobody has the power to change it but the parents themselves (this is untrue for any other group of people). Next time, speak up, take the backlash, and leave knowing that the parent hasn’t changed, but that the child will remember that day.
A lovely friend of mine explained it to me in a very similar way and I think it is a beautiful way to think about it. Even if nothing changes, the child knows that not all adults think that how they are being treated is respectful.
Thank you for your comment
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