Should You Take on Bad Parenting in Public?

While parenting decisions are generally best left to the parents, what happens when a parent does something to their child that makes your hair stand on end?  This happened to the Savvy Psychologist recently. Here’s the story, plus 5 facts to help you decide with confidence whether to take action in a similar scenario.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
April 18, 2014
Episode #015

Page 1 of 2

Last Sunday, I was at my local drugstore looking at birthday cards for my dad and sister-in-law.  Both my boys were with me—my 2-year-old in a carrier on my back and my 5-year-old systematically working his way through all the cards that play tinny electronic music when opened.

Sponsor: Visit GoDaddy.com to get your $2.95 .COM domain. Some limitations apply, see website for details. 

About 10 feet from us was another parent-son pair.  The son was tall but clearly young, maybe 13, probably just coming off an early-teen growth spurt.  This is what I heard:

  • Son: I found one she might like.
  • Dad: [withering sarcasm, not looking at the son] Congratulations.
  • Son: Do you think she’d like it?
  • Dad: [angry, almost spitting] Can’t you figure that out?  Don’t ask me stupid questions.
  • Son: What about this one?
  • Dad: [Ripping it from son’s hand] For whom?  If you’d focus, which you haven’t done yet today, we’d have been done with this a long time ago.  [Something about the way he stressed “whom” made me think they’d just had a what-are-you-stupid conversation about grammar].
  • Son: For Tina.  She’ll be seven.
  • Dad: Well, whoop-de-do. 
  • Son: Don’t put it back! Please, don’t put it back!
  • Dad: [Putting it back.]  I can’t believe you.  Stop bothering me.  [Pulls out phone and stalks off].

During the exchange, I was facing the birthday cards, but I certainly couldn’t see them.  I could feel myself getting hot and sweaty and my heart was pounding.  There was something about the nakedness of their exchange that made it clear this wasn’t a one-time argument. 

Now, we’ve all seen hissed, heated exchanges in public places.  People get angry; people argue.  However, most people try not to make a scene.  They make an effort to stifle their baser behaviors.  But with this dad, it seemed to be normal, so much so that he forgot it wasn’t normal to others. 

To me, this was different than wondering whether or not to offer advice during a toddler meltdown.  Developmentally, it’s totally normal for toddlers to melt down.  But it’s not normal for a parent to verbally humiliate a completely level-headed teen.

To be sure, the dad wasn’t hitting or cursing his son.  He wasn’t even yelling.  His conduct wasn’t illegal, but it sure wasn’t Okay.  Plus, if he’s doing this to his son in the greeting card aisle, I shudder to think what he could be doing at home.

Understandably, it’s really difficult to get accurate numbers on child abuse and neglect, but a 2013 national epidemiological study in JAMA Pediatrics reported that almost 14% of kids experienced maltreatment by a caregiver in the last year, and 25% of kids had experienced maltreatment by a caregiver at least once in their lifetime.  Maltreatment, of course, isn’t just strict discipline or getting grounded—it means physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect.

See also: Speak Up Against Abuse


Child abuse and neglect crosses all lines: money, race, or neighborhood doesn’t matter.  Likewise, while abuse by strangers happens, most abusers, sadly, are family members or close friends.

Usually, the talking doesn’t start until after the fact: a baby is left in a car, a child is discovered in a meth lab, or a teen goes on a shooting spree.  Hindsight is 20/20 and we ask, “Why didn’t anyone say anything?”

So, what if you're faced with this sort of situation where you're merely a witness - what would you do?  What should we do? Here is what I did, for better or worse:

After the dad stalked away with his phone, I sidled up to the boy and touched his arm, which he shrank away from [my heart broke a little at this].  I said “You’re not doing anything wrong.”  He met my gaze, nodded really quickly, and then stepped away.

Then, the dad came back.  A similar conversation played out again between the two of them, but I was too outraged to register exactly what was said.   I turned my whole body to face the dad, who was about 6 feet away, but I didn’t say anything.  I looked at him for about 3-4 seconds.  Not a dirty look, but a look of “I see you.  I see what you’re doing.”  

Some people will argue this was none of my business,  that I overstepped, that I stupidly endangered myself or my kids by engaging, or perhaps even endangered the boy, who now has to bear the brunt of his dad’s annoyance at me.  Others will argue I should have done more.  

The dad didn’t look at me, but crossed his arms and said to the air, “Oh, of course it’s my fault.  It’s all my fault.”   Then he pulled out his phone again and walked away.   I turned to the kid and asked, “Is he always like that?”  But he was looking at his own phone and didn’t answer.  I couldn’t tell if he didn’t hear me or didn’t want to talk to me.  I’m guessing the latter.

Less than a minute later, Dad came back and they both left.  It took me about 10 minutes before I could focus enough to read any of the cards my 5-year-old put in my hands.

A day later, I continue to struggle with this.  Some people will argue this was none of my business,  that I overstepped, that I stupidly endangered myself or my kids by engaging, or perhaps even endangered the boy, who now has to bear the brunt of his dad’s annoyance at me.  Others will argue I should have done more.  Hopefully, some will agree that as rational adults, we should stand up for kids being bullied by their own parents.

If I hear about child abuse within the four walls of my office, as a mental health professional, I am legally mandated to call Child Protective Services or the police.  

To report, “reasonable suspicion” is all I need, and mandated reporters like me are immune to legal consequences—like getting sued—if we’re lucky enough to be wrong.  But if I don’t report, I get fined, go to jail, or both.  When I’m at work, the rules are clear.  

But when I—or you—are at the drugstore, it gets murky......


Related Tips