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

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There are millions of articles out there about not judging others’ parenting.  By now, we should know to offer only “We’ve all been there” or “How can I help?” to the parent during a toddler meltdown.  And, for better or worse, I keep my mouth shut when I see a parent giving a toddler a soda or out with a stroller at midnight.

On the other hand, my kindergartener is being taught at school to stand up to kids who are being mean to him or others.  He’s been taught to say, “That’s not Okay with me,” or “Stop it, he doesn’t like that.”  

Now, if a kindergartener is expected to stand up for kids being bullied, I say adults can be held to at least the same standard.  The media tells us not to judge parents, but there’s a difference between judging parents for harebrained decisions versus protecting kids from abuse, especially when the power differential is as wide as between parent and child.

See also: Speak Up Against Abuse


I hope you never need the following, but here is some information to know before you wade into the fray:

Fact #1: The difference between abuse and discipline is actually pretty clear.  Abuse is unpredictable: there are no rules, or rules get made up or changed at the parent’s whim.  Discipline is about teaching the child and is driven by consistency and concern for the child’s growth and development, while abuse is about having power and control over the child and is driven by anger.

Fact #2:  You probably won’t have the whole story, and that’s Okay.  You don’t have a crystal ball.  You can’t know the full back story, nor can you see the future outcome of the situation, and that’s fine.  Your only goal is to offer—in the moment—help, not reprimand, to the parent, child, or both.

Fact #3: It’s hard to speak up.  “It’s none of my business,” “I’m interfering,” “I don’t want to get involved,” “It’s not my place to say something.”  These statements come from a place of wanting to be appropriate and to stay safe, two completely understandable feelings.

But they also come from a place of fear.  We’re afraid of being wrong, afraid of being labeled as meddlesome or overreacting, but most of all, we’re afraid of having the anger already on display directed at us. 

Imagine yourself acting with empathy and courage the next time you're faced with abuse, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

Two-time Nobel Prize nominee, Dr. C. Henry Kempe, the pediatrician who helped the medical community recognize child abuse in the early 1960s, once said he would rather apologize to a parent because he made a mistake about saying something, than apologize to a brain-damaged child because he did not.

It’s hard to think clearly when you’re scared.  So don’t kick yourself if you inadvertently go into blinders mode. But imagine yourself acting with empathy and courage the next time you're faced with abuse, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.

Fact #4:  Everyone has a voice.  If you see suspicious bruises on your child’s friend or hear sounds that give you goose bumps from the apartment next door, everyone, no matter your professional or personal role, is allowed to report suspected child abuse. 

Reporting to CPS or the police often feels too extreme or “official,” but calling an agency for advice doesn’t have to feel like tattling.  You could also call a school guidance counselor, a religious leader, or a physician. 

If you suspect it, others probably suspect it, too.  Don’t let a child slip through the cracks.  In California, where I live, individuals just trying to do the right thing can make anonymous reports.  Your state may have a similar law. 

Fact #5: If you have time, observation is your best information.  If you’re in a position where you have regular contact with a child you’re concerned about, like a neighbor or your child’s friend or teammate, and you don’t have to make a snap decision about what to do in the moment, your best source of information is not necessarily what a child says, but how he or she behaves.  Because they can’t stop maltreatment, kids who experience abuse or neglect bend over backwards to invent ways to get them through daily life - from spacing out to acting out to withdrawing to extreme people pleasing.   If you suspect, you should of course listen to what the child says, but more importantly, watch how he or she behaves.

Back at the drugstore, here is what I thought about also doing, but didn’t work up the nerve to do:

While the dad was around the corner, I thought about asking the son, “Are you safe?  Does he ever hit you?”  I wish I had said that, but I didn’t. 

I also thought about saying, “It’s not your fault, no matter what he says.” I really wish I had said that.  But I didn’t.  Although since that afternoon, I’ve thought it over and over again, eyes squeezed shut.  Through sheer force of will, I hope the kid hears me through time and space.

As for the dad, after hours of mentally fuming through angry, cutting comments, I thought of this, which is neither angry nor cutting, but I’m sure has a heartbreaking answer:

“How long have you been in so much pain?” 

I didn’t say that, either.  But I wish I had.;

Child abuse image courtesy of Shutterstock.