the mommy walk of shame

A few weeks ago, the Mountain Man, the Pie and I were in our neighborhood grocery store, cheerfully grabbing veggies for dinner. We meandered over to the ice cream section, and got some milk.

The whole way through the store, from an aisle or two over, I could hear a woman yelling at what I assume was her child. She was calling her names and telling her to shut up and stop moving. As we moved through the store, the woman and child continued to be an aisle or two over. I was getting really angry, not only because it was a horrible way to speak to a child, but also because I never actually heard a peep out of the child.

I felt a bit abused just from hearing it.

I stopped talking to the Mountain Man, and listened as closely as I could. I wasn’t sure what to do. If the woman hit the child – if I heard a slap and a wail, would I get involved? Are words enough to justify butting in?

I couldn’t decide. It seemed to be that the woman spoke like this frequently, and the child was probably used to it, defeated by it. It seemed like that child knew to speak in whispers and not be too active.

When we were ready to go, we walked to the register, unloaded our cart and waited. The woman (who I by now knew by voice) and her child pulled up behind us. The woman’s tone had improved, probably because she was in closer proximity to others and realized that she could be heard. This sweet little girl, probably 5 or 6, sat inside the cart and spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear her from just a few feet away.

We paid for our things and began walking out, but stopped and talked with someone we knew on the way. By the time we were making our way to the parking lot, the woman was pushing her wait out of the store right next to us, barking orders to the little girl the whole time.

I was hurting for the little girl, mad at myself for not knowing what to do or say, almost thinking I saw something really inappropriate so that I had good reason to step in. It was painful to see the blank face on that little girl, to see her hesitating about everything. I was questioning how far things could go on the spectrum from unkind to abusive before it’s socially acceptable to intercede.

Walking out of the store and into the parking lot, holding the Pie and with the Mountain Man by my side, I watched the pair move out of my life. It felt like the mommy walk of shame to be quietly walking to my car, packing the Pie and the groceries in, and driving off.

I totally get that parenting is hard, and that people do it differently. I didn’t step in because it never got dangerous or harmful. It was just verbally unkind and bordering on abusive, as far as I could tell. The girl obviously knew how to interact with her mom, and did it carefully. Maybe mom was having a horrible day, maybe the girl had been behaving poorly all afternoon. I only know what I heard, for that brief time.

What do you do when you hear a child being spoken to by his or her parent in an unkind way? How far does it go before you feel OK stepping in? What do you say? Or do you just walk away and try not to hear it?


  1. Something similar happened to me yesterday, though I only witnessed it in passing. A woman smacked her son in the face as she and her family passed by us on the street. The boy hadn't made a sound as far as I could tell, and I got angry. For a good many blocks I took deep breaths and talked it over with Elliot. The same thoughts went through my head--maybe he'd been misbehaving for hours. Maybe this mom was just at the end of her rope. I didn't know the whole story, but I still don't think there's ever a good reason to strike a child...and in the face, no less. Tough stuff.

  2. Yikes. Before I ever had kids (I was maybe 22), I was at the grocery store late at night. I had just arrived into the parking lot, and was getting out of my car headed into the store. I saw a car parked fairly near the entrance (2nd or 3rd parking spot) with a sleeping toddler inside by himself!!!!!!!!

    I am a very confrontational person by nature. you always know where you stand with me (this can be a problem, and I have lost friends over it). OF COURSE I WAITED BY THE TODDLER CAR. I waited and waited. I looked at my watch. I debated whether to call the cops (this was in the days before cell phones).

    15 minutes went by. 20. 25. I waited. The mom finally came out and was a bit alarmed that I was standing next to her car.

    I said, "Why did you leave your child in the car alone? Something could have happened!" I lit into her, and then she lit into me. She basically told me to "F" off, and that it was none of my business.

    I will never forget it. And I would do EXACTLY the same thing again today.

    Megan, as for your incident: Dear Abby addressed this in her column years ago. What she said to do, was approach the mother and say in a kind and disarming way, "It can be so stressful sometimes, being a parent. I know how you feel." Just offer compassion. Maybe the woman's boyfriend just left her. Maybe she just got fired from her job. You do not know the whole situation. The bottom line is to disarm the mom by being kind.


  3. Like you say, we only see a brief slice of time, we never know the whole story. I find it really difficult to criticize other parents because I know how tough it can be, and my own failings as a parent. If I see a situation where the child is uncomfortable due to a parent starting to lose their temper, I will look for something about the child that I can compliment--I make eye contact with the parent and say, "she has beautiful eyes!" or "what a great shirt, I love those dinosaurs!" or something small like that, just in passing, and casual. Trying not to be judgmental, just friendly. A moment to take the parent outside of the situation, to see their child is special in someone else's eyes, is sometimes all it takes for the parent to regain control.

  4. Thanks for the ideas about gently disarming the mom and redirecting the situation - it's so hard to hear kids being treated in a way I consider to be unkind, but I am also not the parent to all the world's children. I only know what I heard for a few minutes, and have to remind myself to not judge the mother and to pleasantly offer help or distraction. At the very least it will be a moment of gentleness for the child.


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