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What Do You Do When You See Bad Parenting?

May20

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If we are going to be honest, at some point in our parenting career we will treat our children in a way we come to regret. Sometimes immediately. Sometimes well after the fact. There is not one of us who hasn’t wished at one time or another that they could have a do-over.

I have not seen the television program, What Would You Do?, but Lisa Belkin wrote about the show on her NYT Motherlode blog. The premise of the show is to see if people intervene in situations. This show in particular had a mother yelling at her child for getting an A-. It is important to note that both the mother and child were played by Asian actresses, preying on the Tiger Mom stereotype.

Would people say something to the mother about her behavior? Turns out they did.

This surprises me. I rarely see people intervene.

*****

I am sitting on the bleachers watching 5 and 6 year old boys practice t-ball. There is one father, also one of the coaches, who is always yelling at his son. Screaming. He storms across the field any time his son does anything that isn’t perfect. Other parents and I comment daily about how tough he is on his kid.

Yesterday I looked up from texting, because let’s face it t-ball practice isn’t exactly riveting, to see the kid running laps around the field after he had missed a catch. After the first lap I see the father say something to the kid. He is now doing bear crawls around the field, pausing every so often to do push-ups.

All of us watching agree that this father’s behavior is over the top. We all agree that it is inappropriate at best and abuse at worst.

Yet, none of us say anything to him.

It’s not our business, is it?

*****

I am in the grocery store. A mother gets in line behind me pushing one of those unwieldy carts with the separate seating area in front of the cart. I can tell she is frazzled. The child is probably about 3 years old, whining, crying, kicking her feet. I feel for the mother. I have been there. Any of us who have children have been there. I try to smile at the mother, to let her know I am not judging her, but she doesn’t make eye contact. Suddenly she snatches the child by her hair and yells in her face.

I am sure that my shock shows on my face, but I say nothing to the mother.

What could I say, really, that would make any sort of difference. This is but a tiny snippet of her day.

It’s none of my business, is it?

*****

Both of these events have been in the forefront of my mind this week. I go over the events in my mind, each time trying to decide what I should have done differently. Where would have been the right place to intervene, to say something. And what should I have said?

I think the first situation is the one that weighs on me the most, because I see it on an almost daily basis. I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anything I said would be welcomed, because, let’s face it, how many of us like to have our parenting critiqued. And yet sitting idly by seems equally as wrong.

What he is doing to his son seems abusive to me, and to some of the other parents, yet I think it is in a sort of gray area. Most people would think the father’s behavior was over the top, and certainly not kind, but when you mention the word abusive people tend to shrug their shoulders.

It’s not our business.
Don’t interfere.
Don’t make any waves.

These are the things that we say to ourselves when we don’t intervene, right? And usually it has nothing to do with the situation we witness but our own insecurities. We don’t want someone to be angry with us.

*****

I end up confronting the father of the child on my son’s baseball team. Several months of this behavior made it seem to me that it was a pattern, not an isolated incident born out of frustration or weariness. Maybe that it where the line lies between making something our business or giving the benefit of the doubt. The line between being the perpetrator of a parenting drive-by or having enough knowledge of the situation to truly judge.

I thought I was being very specific. I thought I tempered my words. I spoke only about the single incident that troubled me. He did not take it well and instead decided to take my words as an indictment of his over all parenting skills. To say he was angry would be an understatement.

I felt nauseous from the level of animosity I felt coming at me. Not one  other parent stood with me.

I begin to let my own insecurities think that maybe it really was none of my business.

*****

I am in the grocery store at the witching hour. That is what I call the time of day when the children are tired, cranky, unreasonable and probably hungry. I knew it was a bad idea to try and do a quick stop with my six and seven year olds, but I really had no other choice. They have whined and bickered throughout the store. Standing in the check out line has exacerbated their bad behavior. Suddenly one child kicks the other. There is shoving. There is crying. I have reached the end of my rope. Each have clutched in their hand a candy that was promised to them if they behaved in the store. I reach out and snatch the candy. Roughly. My temper is short and I speak unkindly. I am not at all sympathetic to them. There are tears.

I make eye contact with the woman who has gotten in line behind me at some point.

Wow, you are tough.

I can’t tell if her words are those of admiration or judgment. I assume the latter. Why?

My face burns. Not with shame or embarrassment, though I feel those too, but with anger at this woman. Who is she to judge me? She knows nothing about me. She knows nothing about my parenting. She doesn’t know that most people consider me to be almost saint-like with the level of patience I (usually) have with my children. I think even Mother Theresa would have drop kicked my two kids out of the store on this particular day.

My anger toward the woman behind me in line surprises me.

I have found in the course of my life that when my anger flairs up so hotly, there is a nugget of truth that I need to examine further. In this case I didn’t have to do any soul excavation, I knew why I was angry. Instead of choosing compassion for my children, I took my own frustrations out on them. Not by taking the candy away, though in retrospect given the time of day and their level of crankiness I was setting them up for failure, but by snatching the candy away from them and behaving in a way that I would never tolerate coming from them.

I realized that I was angry at this woman for holding up the mirror in which I saw myself.

*****

I still see the father a few times a week, since our kids play on the same team. I didn’t regret what I said. I think it needed to be said by someone. At the time I was just wishing I didn’t have to be the one to say it.

In the weeks that have followed I have not witnessed him treating his son in any way that would be considered abusive. His whole demeanor on the field has changed. There isn’t any physical punishments nor has there been any inappropriate screaming.  There has been a lot more encouragement and positive reinforcement. 

Maybe he just needed someone to hold up the mirror.

About the author

Chris Jordan

http://notesfromthetrenches.com
Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.

Yes, they are all hers.

No she's not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.

Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That's why her youngest is almost 6.

Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.


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29 Responses to “What Do You Do When You See Bad Parenting?”

  1. Dawn May 20 at 12:44 pm Reply Reply

    You already know you did the right thing – by speaking calmly and only addressing the specific behavior you witnessed – but I still have to say you are awesome for doing so because it is very hard to confront another person in that manner. You may truly have helped both father and son by what you did. And all the other people who did not step in may have felt that you were handling it well and that jumping in would have exacerbated the situation even further considering the reaction you go from the father. This is just such a difficult thing to do in this day and age as we are all taught to back off and mind our own business. I try offering a kind word or a sympathetic look myself whenever I see a frazzled parent. Sometimes it’s even helped.

  2. Erin May 20 at 2:27 pm Reply Reply

    Love the thoughtfulness of this piece. The answer to this question IS complicated.

    It brought to mind an NPR (TOTN) piece I recently heard about people who do things that are “out of character.” A man called in to tell a story about a time he tried to return a defective product to the store and when he was told he couldn’t, he became so enraged he threatened a salesperson’s life. What was really going on was that his wife was dying of ALS and he was angry about losing his best friend….

    And so… you do never know what’s going on in someone’s mind or their life. At the same time, there has to be some kind of line where speaking up is the right thing to do. And yes, even if the initial reaction is anger and defensiveness, the message may still get through.

  3. sonja lange May 20 at 2:32 pm Reply Reply

    you should be very proud of yourself – I HATE confrontation and have walked away many times when I should have said something about the way things were handled – sports can bring out the worst in a parent, when we know what the kids CAN do and they DON’T do – it gets frustrating…but they know what they can do and are probably already being hard on themselves without us adding to it…good job mama!

  4. Amber Gordon May 20 at 3:39 pm Reply Reply

    I have a tendency not to interfere. Parenting is so ‘each to your own’ and even in my own family I get judged on one side for being too ‘lax’ judged on the other side for too ‘paranoid’ yes god forbid I don’t want people teaching my kids rascist words and having them in car seats.

    I have also been you with the candy (you can’t tell me a parent has NEVER lost their temper with their child in some way. They would be lying.) I was also texting at a playground once and my kid tripped and smacked his head open and had a terrible gash. Can’t tell me they didn’t think something about that…

  5. Tracy May 20 at 5:51 pm Reply Reply

    I’m all for standing up for the children we see treated unkindly. The problem is, if the adult who’s care they are in is already upset, hearing criticism about their behavior can cause their anger to escalate. I fear they will then take it out on the child even more.
    When I see something I’m uncomfortable with, I try to align myself with the parent. Making a comment like “Man, it’s exhausting shopping with grumpy kids, isn’t it?” gives the adult a chance to feel understood and calm down a bit. And a chance to, hopefully, modify their attitude. It won’t always work, but it’s worth a try. We’ve all been the candy-snatcher at some point!

  6. Mama B May 20 at 6:04 pm Reply Reply

    I was in a similar situation recently except I was the one being too tough. It was at my mother in laws house and I dragged my son out of the room all the kids were in (on his sisters birthday) and shouted at him for pushing her out of the way to get to the cake. I was at the end of my tether and my reaction was inappropriate at best. My sister in law saw me do this, I hadn’t realized till after. I just smiled and muttered something about being stressed. The part that killed me was that two days later she called me up to ask how I was doing and to tell me if I ever needed any help I could ask her and that I seemed stressed. I wanted to die of embarrassment and of disappointment in myself. It was horrible! 

  7. Heather May 20 at 7:23 pm Reply Reply

    We all need a mirror sometimes.

  8. susannah May 20 at 9:31 pm Reply Reply

    I watched in horror as a young mom, with an 18 month old son, yelled at him and then hit him because he did not get into the car fast enough. then when he started crying because of being hit and yelled at, she hit him some more.  then she slammed the door shut and drove away.  I was frozen, not knowing what to do.  If I intervened, then would it help? would she just scream and hit the child more. what is with her life that she can be so awful to a child who was too small to get into the car on his own in the first place.  what does she do in private, if she hits him in a shopping mall parking lot.  I am still thinking about it, feeling how powerless he was, and how I did nothing.  but what would I have been able to do?

    • child advocate Aug 12 at 9:02 pm Reply Reply

      I saw something very similar. Yes, there is something you can do, take license plate down, get as much description of what parent is doing, location, date and time. Hitting a child is something reportable. Call your local CPS and even law enforcement. I did and there was immediate follow up, come to find out the mother I reported had a case open and there was follow up in place. Don’t worry about breaking a family apart, first there is an investigation and proper follow is done according to recommendation.

  9. Jenni May 20 at 9:39 pm Reply Reply

    Great post! I admire you for saying something to that father and I bet that deep down that father admires you for having the balls. And can you imagine how his son feels about you? That. Jordan Mom. Rocks.

  10. A May 20 at 11:33 pm Reply Reply

    My mother was like that boy’s father.  Unspeakably abusive, even in front of other people. I often felt humiliated and deeply ashamed. 
    In retrospect (and because people tell you things as an adult they didn’t want to say when you were a kid) everyone knew she was abusive.  And no one said or did anything.  For YEARS (and thousands of dollars in therapy) I wondered why.
    My mother would have reacted the same as that father – she wouldn’t have taken it nicely. But having someone call her out on that behavior would have given her pause before doing the same again, at least in front of people.  And really, the humiliation is 1/2 the problem. When you’re in a situation like that, another adult stepping up to help you out is huge.  And an encouraging word from an abusive parent is priceless.
    So, as the abused kid, I want to say thanks.  You rock.

  11. Nicola May 21 at 1:41 am Reply Reply

    That was a very well written aricle. It is so very hard to know what to do in these difficult situations, in part, because we have all been that awful parent (even just for a moment!) You were tremendously brave to confront that father and I just hope that I would have been the kind of person that would have backed you up.

  12. Lucinda May 21 at 2:54 am Reply Reply

    Saying something can be so hard.  Like a commenter above said, when I see something in a store, I usually express sympathy because I HAVE been there where I was pushed to my very limit.  One time a child threw up in a store and the mother just yelled at her.  I immediately offered to help clean up the mess and explained that I knew how hard that could be.  She didn’t seem to appreciate it and later I saw her yelling at her other child but I knew I had tried to show kindness, even if it didn’t help.  I admire you for taking the time to talk to the father.  I don’t know if I could have done that.  My husband would though and has.

  13. Brittany May 21 at 7:30 am Reply Reply

    Loved this :)

  14. Jenn May 21 at 8:22 am Reply Reply

    I have been having a similar dilemma for months. A mother brings her son to the preschool my daughter attends every week without strapping him into a car seat. At drop off time every week I see them pull up, him climb out of the front seat without undoing a seatbelt even. I don’t want to say anything because it’s really none of my business but at the same time I know that if something were to ever happen I would just hate myself. Preschool ends in four weeks…still not sure if I’m going to say anything.

    **********
    Isabel: Jenn, if you really do suspect that the child is not safe, you need to say something. You can do it in a friendly, non-threatening way, like “Hey do you think your son is unbuckling himself while you’re driving? I saw ____ and you may not be aware of it….”

  15. Ruth H May 21 at 1:32 pm Reply Reply

    I do not see the abusive behavior as much in stores as I did back when my children were young. I do believe education has helped. I spoke up on two occasions at that time, I do not know if helped or not. I like to think it did.
    On one of the occasions a mother pulled her child by the ear while yelling abuse. I could NOT have spoken up at that, it was way over the top. I shamed her and I did it purposely. She was going to damage the poor kids hearing if not his mental health.
    Another time it was an employer to an employee. A grown, rich woman owner of a restaurant ranting at a young man for showing up in the customer area with all that acne on his face. She was so angry she had no idea how ugly it made her. I got my family out of there and told her we would never eat there again as long as she owned it. I don’t know if she learned a lesson or just hid it later, but we never did eat there again.

  16. Nicki May 21 at 5:35 pm Reply Reply

    I went through something identical with a very abusive mom of a 4 year old gymnast on my daughter’s pre-team. For me, I waited 4 months to say anything and only spoke up when backed by another mom. In this case it totally back-fired. she only increased her level of awful abuse toward her daughter (literally in between justifying her parenting and defending herself) and now there is so much added tension and negativity twice a week that I’m almost sick with anxiety and stress when I have to go into the gym. I didn’t think it could get worse – for those of us who have to witness it or for her daughter – but it did. I’m left wondering whether there is any point in intervening on behalf of a child if it only makes life more difficult for that child?

    I’m glad the situation seems to have worked out for the tball kid, though. Gives me hope that maybe this is just some level of Crazy that is above and beyond the typical bad parenting that would ordinarily drive us to step in.

  17. Jen May 21 at 7:24 pm Reply Reply

    I think you did the right thing. As hard as it is, we all need to stand up for children who cannot stand up for themselves. By not attacking the coaches parenting as a whole and focusing on the single event you took some of the sting out of it. Also by focusing on one event it may have made it easier for him to understand what you are talking about. I have moments I would like to take back when I was less than loving to my son. He is almost 15 now and is a wonderful human being who loves me. Thankfully most of the parenting mistakes we make, as long as we’re willing to admit them, and strive to constantly be a better parent are forgiven. jen

  18. JoAnne May 21 at 8:43 pm Reply Reply

    It’s funny that you posted this article. I just encountered a situation last night where I had this same struggle with myself. I was waiting outside of a restaurant for a take-out order and witnessed a mother pull in and park in front of the restaurant. She then proceeded to get out and lock the car. That is when I noticed that she left a small (2 or so) child in the backseat in a carseat with the window cracked while she went in to the restaurant. There was no one else in the car with the child. I was so shocked that anyone would think this was okay that I just watched for awhile. She was gone at least 10 minutes. She then came out and gave the child a snack (to choke on??!?) and went back in to the restaurant.

    I debated what to do. I figured nothing I said to her directly would benefit this child, so I ended up calling the police and reporting a child left unattended in a car. I would like to think I did the right thing. I just worried that if she thought this was appropriate, what else did she think was appropriate and what would happen the next time it was too hot or a pedophile walked by or who knows!!?!?!

    • Ana Aug 12 at 9:16 pm Reply Reply

      Good for you! We need to stand up for these helpless kids, hopefully CPS got involved and made her go through parenting classes!

  19. Colleen May 21 at 9:54 pm Reply Reply

    Wow, timely. I was just having a discussion about a parent that I have witnessed over the course of several years having different kids that do sports together. Thing is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids are abused at home, and there are a LOT of us who have seen the shoving and heard the yelling first hand.She’s mean as a snake and doesn’t care who sees it.

    She reminds me very much of my best friend’s mom and only years later did I learn they were all abused, mostly mentally, and that the threat was always that they would never stay together (there were 5 of them) if they were taken away. She told me staying together was more important to them than anything.

    This mother I see now has 4 kids. I try to justify my inaction thinking of my childhood friend, but the truth is, I am very non-confrontational and I admit to being scared of her. She’s easily 6′ tall, stout and mean. So, I am too much of wimp to stand up for some kids who could really use someone to stand up for them. I’m not proud of that.

  20. Billie May 21 at 11:05 pm Reply Reply

    What a great post! I commend you for saying something to this guy and am so happy that he obviously took it to heart by changing his behavior.

    I had a similar situation with the head coach of my son’s baseball team. Luckily, the guy is pretty laid back with other parents and as the team mom, I felt like I was the one that needed to stand up and say something. I don’t think he went to the lengths that your guy did, but he was always much much harder on his own son than the rest of the team (his son is not actually his biological son. He is his ex-wife’s kid that he treats like his son which gives him huge kuddos in my book). In my situation, I just mentioned that he should have one of the assistant coaches say things to his son when he is in the wrong and that he should let the assistant coaches cheer him on when his kid is pitching. It was just one of those deals where you could see that the kid wasn’t responding well when the information came from his dad compared to another coach (which is exactly how my kid is too).

    I’m like you though, I see that show, “What Would You Do”, and really think about how I would respond in those kinds of situations. I’m pretty loud-mouthed with my opinion most of the time which makes me pretty sure that I would say something to most people. It’s just a fine line on how you handle it and how the other person is going to take the criticism. A lot of people don’t take criticism well, but in most cases they are likely to change the behavior once they reflect on it.

  21. Jennifer May 21 at 11:33 pm Reply Reply

    I think these types of situations are (mostly) all hard.  I guess I don’t feel that the coaches behavior was abusive, and what makes this type of stuff hard, is that everyone is different.  You may treat one kid that way and when he’s thirty, he may thank you for it because that’s what made him strive to succeed.  That’s why he became good at something.  But another child, with a different personality, being treated that way could grow up resentful and angry.  Maybe it is the parents job (I believe it is) to try to figure out which kinds of discipline and motivation to use on their own kids. After all, most of us are trying to do what’s in our children’s best interest.  

     Now, I still feel you had the right to approach him (privately and quietly) but labeling that kind of behavior as abuse can muddy the waters.  As soon as you call something abuse, the authorities want to stick their noses in everything, thinking they know best, and that can often be where the real trauma to the children comes from.  At least that’s how I see it.

    (note:  Obvi I’m not talking about physical contact here)

  22. Karate Mom May 22 at 3:35 pm Reply Reply

    Just yesterday,  I was standing in a long line with my daughter, waiting for an event to start. Behind me were two young-ish looking moms – mid-20′s, maybe? – and their kids who looked to be about 6 or 7. Anyway, one little girl stepped on her mom’s foot and the mom yelled out in pain, then proceeded to say, to the girl, “G**Da** you, you little bi***!” My jaw literally dropped open! I wanted SO BADLY to say something, but I honestly figured that if she was willing to talk to her daughter that way, there was no telling what she’d say to me and I didn’t want to get cussed out in front of my daughter. Maybe that was cowardly, I don’t know. My heart broke for the little girl, though.

  23. edj May 22 at 6:27 pm Reply Reply

    THis is so tough! There are so many reasons not to get involved, and so many reasons TO get involved. I admire you for being wiling to speak to that father, and to take the yelling he gave you, to help his son. I don’t often have that kind of courage myself. As for moms in grocery stores, I tend to assume it’s a rough day and not assume it’s typical behaviour. However. As someone pointed out, if they do that in public what goes on in private? I have had my share of bad parenting moments, but they’ve never included swearing or hitting one of my kids. hmmm. Lots to think about. I think so much depends on the manner in which the “interference” is offered.

  24. Kathi May 23 at 12:55 pm Reply Reply

    Great article, Chris. Bravo for you for standing up for that kid.

    JoAnne, just wanted to say that you did ABSOLUTELY the right thing by calling the police when the woman left her young child in the car. I have a friend whose young son died this way; he was 3, watching a DVD when they pulled into the driveway. He wanted to finish the movie, so they left him in the car while they unloaded the groceries. When they returned (less than 5 minutes later), he had tried to unbuckle himself, and had become strangled in the straps of the seat. He was dead before they could do anything to help. My friend now makes it her business to tell her story to prevent future tragedies. And she will wait by a car in a parking lot, if a child has been left inside. And will call the police if necessary. So bravo for you for doing the right thing.

  25. Jillian May 24 at 11:01 am Reply Reply

    I parked my car once on my way to the beach. It was crowded and there was a long walk on the side of a busy road to get to the enterance. While walking, I saw a little kid in front of me, like 5 or 6, walking alone and not ONE adult in view. (Road curved ahead to enterence) When I got closer, he walked off to the side and slumped against a pole and started crying. I was so upset that his parents weren’t around, so I walked up and asked what was wrong and convinced him to walk with me. He was so upset because they just left him alone to walk the rest of the way. (and might I say he had a TON of heavy stuff for a little kid) I helped him carry it, and we walked on and I started to ask him what he was excited to do on the beach. He cheered up and on we went. As we rounded the corner I saw his Dad up ahead waiting. Still a LONG WAY away for a little kid on a busy road with a ton of summer traffic. When he saw his dad he straighted up, said he could handle his items the rest of the way without my help and said he could walk by himself now too. It was so upsetting to see this little kid try to toughen up and ‘man-up’ I guess since his Dad was in view. Anyway, I walked ahead at my own pace and let him trail behind me since his Dad was now watching. When I got up to the Dad, he made a smart, snarky comment about how he’s tougher than he looks. So I said ‘that may be the case, but he’s still a little kid and you were No Where in sight.’ I also pointed out that it was a busy road any anything could have happened and he wouldn’t have known for too long…. including, God forbid, an abduction. No one would have known! Anyway, I was pissed on the kid’s behalf, and the Dad was just a total arrogant jerk. He also refused to pay the entrance fee to the beach because they didn’t have signs on the road stating there was a fee. Just in the parking lot, which was full and why we were all having to park along the side of the road. I hope my comments made him feel like the jerk he is, but probably not. I don’t think you can change people like that. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents about the one time I spoke up to a parent in outrage at their behavior.

  26. Natalie May 25 at 12:34 am Reply Reply

    I think you definitely demonstrated that you can intervene with positive results if it’s handled the right way. Yes, it was horrible the way he reacted at the time, but to see the change in his behavior after the fact is great. We had a similar situation on our older son’s ice hockey team. Dad at the glass screaming stuff at his son. My husband worked in the penalty box and when “Jimmy,” who is a sweet, sweet kid, came into the box on a penalty,he cried and said, “My dad hates me!” It was awful. My husband spoke to the dad as did the coaches. The dad was initially in denial thinking it didn’t bother his son, but something obviously sunk in. At the next game, Jimmy was sent to the box again on a bad call (he’s a sweet kid, but a tough player!). The dad was right next to me so I yelled out, “It’s OK, Jimmy!” And the dad started mirroring my behavior, yelling encouragement to his son. Hats off to you for having the guts to speak up!

  27. kembrel way Jun 03 at 9:38 pm Reply Reply

    dont ever be maen to your kids

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