Monday, January 07, 2008

A Moral Dilemma

A friend of mine was waiting for an appointment in the office of our church, with a lot of other people. She didn't know any of them - it's a big church - but a father caught her attention because he was berating his child. I wasn't there, but it sounded like his little son dropped or knocked over a piece of paper that was directing people and my friend went to help him pick it up. The dad starting in telling the kid that people were counting on him, he had ruined this, look how stupid he is, etc. Then the mom came in from the other room and the dad started telling her how stupid their son is, look what he did, he ruined this, he's so stupid. For dropping a piece of paper.

So, my question is: what does an observer do? I don't know what I would do in that situation but I'm not sure I'd keep my mouth shut. I don't know if it would help to say anything, but - especially if it was a member of my own church community - I would feel some kind of responsibility. But then, what is appropriate - or helpful - to do in that situation?

I'd love to hear from anyone with ideas. I've been in similar situations and have never known what to do. If the dad was beating his child with a belt in public, many of us would step in. I happen to think that yelling at a kid and telling him he's stupid, worthless, etc. has effects that are just as lasting. What would you do?


Michael said...

This is a very tricky situation, B. The instinct to confront this abusive dad directly is always going to be there, but you could end up regretting that decision.

It's painful to witness other people being humiliated or abuse or berated, especially in public. The problem is compounded when it's a child receiving the abuse. But we don't always have the right or power to interfere, and that makes us feel powerless. Yes, that person is probably going to be damaged by the incident, possibly for a day or a year or their entire life. Some people heal faster than others. That child you saw in the church won't be the only to face the wrath of an unreasonably angry parent. Most of us did at one time or another, and we're still relatively intact as adults.

I'd suggest doing your best to put that incident out of your own mind and pray for family healing. No one can fully protect children from overzealous parents who take discipline too far, but the law is on the side of the parents, unfortunately it would seem at times. The father obviously has issues of his own and is projecting them onto his child. The incident was minor, but apparently it triggered somethimg bigger in the father's mind.

blue shoes said...

I think that unless you had a chance to speak to the father alone (i.e. not in the middle of lots of folks where he had a higher chance of becoming defensive), you were right not to say anything to him at that time. If you did have a chance to catch him alone shortly after the incident, I think that if you DID choose to say something, it would be bestest to say something personal like "I understand we all have difficult days, and I know I can lash out when I'm having one, but I've worked with a lot of kids as a teacher and I've noticed that sometimes when a child is talked down to, he can start to think of himself as 'stupid' or 'worthless.' I'm sure that you love your son and want the best for him, and so I it's not your intention for him to feel that way about himself."

Would it be risky to say that? Yes. But you, Bronwyn, are a person who takes risks. He could still ignore you, or get angry, but if you refrained from attacking him, and said something polite, that shows empathy for the father and expresses that you are sure he loves his son, then there's always that chance that 1% of what you said will get heard later when he calms down.

If you decide to avoid the father altogether, you can also always go over to give the son a hand and/or try to say something encouraging like "Wow, accidents happen to everyone! Let me help you pick this up!"

It's a sticky situation, for sure, but you do have a few options, and you can probably trust your well-tuned teacher-gut to tell you if/when they are appropriate.

Jessamyn Harris said...

what I would probably do? and, um, dare I suggest that we have similar temperaments... I would go up to the kid, kneel down, and tell him (not even dealing with the parents), "it's okay, everyone makes mistakes, and you are definitely not stupid" or something. and walk away.
what can people really do in that situation but try to make a positive influence even for a second?
that, or punch the dad in the face. jerk.

wondering said...

Very tricky situation.
One thing to remember is this:
Angry parents suffer in their own way,too. They come from what they learned. There is no Parenting 101to teach the way. Families learn what they see.

Pray. God loves His broken people. Keep hope for healing. Have compassion. I see the stressed parent, lashing out. They blame where there often is great shame. A vicious circle of pain.

The child goes home with that parent. The child loves that parent, no matter what, confused maybe, but loving.

Give compassion where you can, maybe not at a particular moment witnessed. Pray then, but give: your time, your money, your heart. Help the healing begin.

a sojourner said...

That's not an easy situation. If there was a way to talk to the father (not in the heat of the moment, but taking him aside or something) I think you could say something along the lines of what Julie said. And I might do that.

As a parent now I recognize that we all make mistakes. It's certainly ok to be called on them, but trying to do so with some grace attached will make it easier to hear.