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?