I don't really know which forum is best for this issue, but I'll start here.
The other day, I was in a restaurant with my 4-yr-old and witnessed what was overtly and undeniably a woman emotionally abusing a child. She didn't scream, but enough people heard her to turn around and stare. She turned beet red and angry while scolding a little boy who was about 7. "You do NOT eat with your fingers. You use a fork. A FORK! You embarrass me, you embarrass yourself. I am SICK AND TIRED of you acting like a baby. You KNOW BETTER. Now PICK UP YOUR FORK. Ugh! I can't just can't believe you..." This went on and on and on and on as people (including me) stared appallingly at her and the poor little boy sniveled, cried, and sunk into his seat. The more he teared up, the harder she dug into him. Gee, bullying this little boy must have made her feel really strong and powerful.
Believe me, I'm not alone in thinking that this was just horrible. A lady at a table behind me exclaimed, "What a bitch!" But the angry lady, (she was either an older mom or younger grandma), either didn't hear her or ignored her.
Look, 100% of us have gotten so far at the end of the rope that we've snapped and said something stupid to our children. Hopefully, it's followed by a hug and an apology. I'm extremely compassionate toward stressed out parents because I've sooooo been there. But what I witnessed wasn't definitely wasn't impulsive snapping. I simply can't be non-judgmental in a situation like this. My heart just ached for that poor boy.
I felt the urge to do the same thing as the other restaurant patron and call the woman a bitch. But I refrained because I worried that it would make the woman lash out even harder, maybe even at the little boy. But since she was clearly making a scene, it's hard to put this situation in the nobody's-business category because she made it everybody's business.
Have you ever witnessed anything similar? What did you do? Is there an appropriate response in a situation like this?
Yes, I have heard MUCH worse language at children in public... I wouldn't be happy to overhear it but I'm not sure that I'd say anything. I have told random strangers that "that is no way to talk to a child!" when I've overheard serious verbal abuse with full on cursing. And I've prayed that I wouldn't get punched in the face for it.
Usually my kid (we call him Mouth) will say something like "WOW! I'm glad she's not my mom!" before I can say anything at all.
Once at a barbecue, a grandma was trying to force her grandchild to eat while all the other kids played, and telling the kid there weren't ingredients in the food that there were. I had made a salmon pasta salad and she was telling her it's just peppers, you like them. I was like "No, I made that it's salmon." and the grandma shooshed me. I felt so bad for the girl and my husband was like "Just let her go play with the other kids, she'll get something when she's hungry!" This girl was 8 or so, plenty old enough to know if she was hungry or not and everyone had been snacking all afternoon. But the poor kids had to 'clean her plate'.
My go-to line is:
"Excuse me, is there anything I can do to help?" Might not have anything to do with what happened, but it provides a break in the tension, and a social cue that they're acting out of the acceptable box.
Usually, the parent/caregiver snaps back, "No, thank you!" but it does work to make them aware that they're not acting in a vacuum. And most often, that means that they shift their behaviour.
If it's blatant abuse, ie. spanking, or yelling obscenities in a shaming/blaming way, physical or verbal assault, I put on my biggest voice ... "HEY! Whoa! What are you doing?"
And then they can tell me; either to eff off, or how their kid supposedly deserved it, or how they got carried away, or whatever. Again, they'll at least know that I SEE them. It either diffuses the situation, or turns the assailant's attention to me, which I can then deal with, or heck, call the cops. I sometimes have my cell phone in hand when I confront them.
I really don't know what an appropriate response is. As PPs have pointed out, many of us have had moments when we've lost it and behaved in ways that can be construed as abusive. If it were outright physical abuse... I don't know, I might have to say something, or as someone else suggested, report the incident perhaps. Verbal... I would probably just feel very bad for the child, embarrassed for the parent, hope it is an isolated or rare occurrence in their family, and reflect on just how bad that situation looks from the outside. That perspective has been helpful to me at times when my own kids are driving me crazy. Also, I know that as a young mom I was often prone to losing my temper and treating DD1 ungently, and I remember the terrible guilt that followed- it helped me get ahold of myself and become a better parent. I guess I'd hope the parent I was witnessing might go through a similar evolution if he/she were mired in an angry and abusive cycle.
Its a great question and a great topic for thought/discussion. I guess it would have to get to the point of immediate serious endangerment before I know for sure I would intervene. Nobody's perfect.
I don't think there was a way you could assist without turning the mom's anger/frustration on you. I'm glad you see that she could have just been at the end of her rope and it's quite possible she left and int he car told her child, "hey listen, I snapped and I was wrong. I was getting frustrated with you and it was not okay to take it out on you. I'm sorry." Sometimes when I see a parent in the store with a toddler who keeps taking off or mom is overwhelmed with multiple kids and I can assist, I do. Maybe it's just even playing peek a boo for a moment iwth a toddler while mom is in the checkout lane. I grabbed a climbing toddler at the zoo last week who was milliseconds from falling face first into a pond while mom was yelling at her in a REALLY frustrated tone from about 10ft away. Actually two days ago I was grocery shopping with all 3 of mine and there was a mom just LAYING INTO her son for getting so messy with a muffin and making himself filthy and mashing it into a new shirt and getting it all over the floor. I think she was more embarrassed than anything but I pushed my cart over, smiled at her, and said, " you should have seen my youngest one yesterday. Mud. Head to toe. She was so proud of herself too. Good thing they are only little one, huh? I have a baby wipe in my purse, let me get it out for you." Sometimes just commiserating with a fellow parent is enough to distract them and remind them that it's not the end of the world. No one is judging them. We've all been there. In the restaurant like that, unless you are right next to them and can smile in that knowing way and make a comment about your own experiences like that, there's no much you can do. It's not like she was beating the snot outta the kid. And it could have been something that kid had been doing over and over and she was just really frustrated and had had a bad day. Hopefully she handled it better later on when she cooled down and the kid had a good lesson in apologies and treating people with respect.
As much as I wish everyone treated their children (and spouse, and everyone else for that matter) with kindness and respect, I do think that it's a disservice to children who are truly abused and in need of intervention, to interpret less-than-kind (and yeah, even outright mean) comments as abuse. It's a spectrum. There's a difference between the definitely non-GD spanking approach (which I definitely don't advocate, but don't see as *abuse* necessarily) to people genuinely torturing their precious children, maiming them, breaking bones, scarring etc. I think the same goes for verbal abuse. Being sarcastic, mean, etc... Is it nice? No. Will it harm the child long-term? Sadly, it's a possibility... but then again, it MAY just be an off-day for the mother and there is a big apology coming, etc. Truly CPS can't go around taking kids from every "bitch" of a mother. You might feel righteous about calling the authorities and reporting them, but for all you know, the family would be placed under MORE stress (a TON more stress) by being reported, and things might get worse. Or, the child might be removed altogether, and I don't know how going to a foster home and being ripped away from all you know would necessarily be better than staying with your parents who may or may not be less-than-kind on occasion.
I am a firm believer than most people who lash out are suffering on the inside, and need compassion more than judgment. Getting the law involved on someone else would be a last resort for me. I would rather try to see if I could help if it was feasible.
What I would do, in an ideal situation like that, is to try to be discreet in talking to the mother. For example, instead of walking up to their table all conspicuously, I might try to "head to the restroom" at the same time they were leaving, or something like that. Maybe say something sympathetic, or tell them I've been there, or something. Once I was in a store and another mother was clearly yelling at her son. He was maybe 10-11 and clearly embarrassed. She was going on about why he couldn't be like other people. I said something to her about how I have that conversation with my kids every other day, and smiled. I wasn't trying to encourage her, but it did distract her. She started talking to me about how frustrating it was for her to have an ADHD son, and she went on to vent about how she's exhausted and his new meds aren't working, and this and that. It was a total stranger, but it seemed she really needed to vent to someone. I listened to her for a minute or two, and then she just sighed and apologized to her son, and went off, a lot calmer. I ran into them a few minutes later again and they were smiling and having a good time (it seemed) by then. I think that situation went just about perfectly - she didn't get offended, she got to vent, I think she realized that she wasn't acting "right" - and I would hope that if I ever acted like that in public, that's the sort of reaction I would get. Someone to maybe remind me to take a step back, sympathize, etc. It's a different situation if someone is too far gone, though, and those methods wouldn't help them. I don't know. It's a tough call. I think I would rather err on the side of caution though before judging someone else's less-than-stellar parenting moments. (Unless there was outright and undeniable abuse going on, in which case I'd consider that an emergency and would treat accordingly.)
For me personally, it wouldn't make a difference as to whether it was a woman or a child. Or a grandmother or pet. If someone is setting off my danger alert, I would treat that the same. If there was a clear emergency, I would do SOMEthing. If in a large group, try to stand up to the aggressor (and hope others would back me up), or call the cops, or something. But no, I can't imagine myself interfering if there was just an uncomfortable conversation going on. I guess it does depend on being there in the moment, and is hard to tell over the Internet and generalize.
ETA: The point in showing compassion to the parent (in that situation) is not the end all and be all. It's a method of diffusing the situation. Of COURSE the child needs empathy too. But ramping up the tension with the parent while shooting sympathetic looks to the child (or whatever) isn't going to help them in the long run... What might help them is to help the parent calm down, step back, maybe re-evaluate their incorrect response, and let them fix it. Hopefully. Otherwise the parent might just take out more aggression out on them later.
I get what you're saying, sort of... but I'm not sure I agree. It's not OK to tell a spouse to sit down, if you're polite about it? I tell my spouse to sit down all the time. ;) And he does the same to me, and I don't mind. Or I'll tell him to quiet down if he gets really loud in public, or he'll tell me to xyz, whatever. It's not a parent-child relationship, but still. I'm just not sure I understand your point.
That, yeah, I've had happen before as well. I've never had it get to the point of actually arguing with the customer, but I will try to say something nice to someone if I feel they're being treated unfairly. I guess I'm not very confrontational in that way - maybe I should be! - but I would rather just say something positive to the clerk or whoever when it's my turn, to let them know that I saw what happened and that it wasn't fair to them, or what have you.
To stir the pot a bit, let's say my DH and I are eating at the restaurant table next to yours, and you overhear DH "command" me to do something... where it doesn't register for me to be upset, but it wouldn't fly in your marriage. Would that be perhaps distressing to you in some way, even if it wasn't to me? Obviously, you would be able to see whether or not I was crying in the corner, so that would make a difference too, but would you perhaps judge regardless?
OP, I think we keep coming back to the idea of what is and what is not abuse because it's relevant to the nature of the discussion. It's not just our own personal definitions of abuse that matter, but in a way, what IS the common definition of abuse. There's a really muddled middle ground between "definitely abuse" and "definitely not abuse" and it is very hard to generalize how one would act in that sort of situation. (Or to imagine how one would like to act in said situation - which obviously takes some courage to do so.) If a law is being broken, that's an easy and clear-cut thing. But yeah, it is such a difficult topic to figure out. When should we mind our own business, just how much are we responsible to the people around us, how do we do the most good and the least harm? I don't know how to answer these questions hypothetically, but thank you for bringing it up. It's good food for thought.