Check out this video about an episode of What Would You Do, a hidden camera show about public moral situations. This one is about child abduction.
In case you can’t see the video, here’s the short version. A participating little girl stands on a sidewalk and an adult male actor walks by, grabs her by the arm, and drags her away. The goal is to see what the public would do if a kid were being abducted. The abductor-actor sometimes acts like he’s scolding her and sometimes doesn’t say anything, while the girl yells, “You’re not my dad! Someone help me!” Many people stare but don’t help. Eventually a couple of guys begin to intervene and are let in that it’s for television. Then there’s an interview segment about the experiment.
I don’t want to focus on child abductions. Let’s talk about parenting.
In the interview, the abductor-actor tries to blame the inaction of the public on the Bystander Effect, which is when lots of people see something but none report it or help because they all assume someone else will. At least one interviewed bystander on the show talks about thinking someone else would take care of it. But I wonder how many people even thought what they were seeing was unusual. In order for the Bystander Effect to be in play, the people watching have to know they’re seeing a problem.
How is the behavior of the “abductor” fundamentally different from behavior we often see from parents?
One of the guys who stepped up to help says, “First I thought she was being a little disobedient, but then [the abductor wasn’t] sayin’ nothing.”
Imagine if instead of being silent, the abductor was saying things like, “Come on, I don’t have time for this! We have to get to practice! We’re already late! Your brother is waiting in the car! Wait until I tell your mother!” Then nothing about the situation is really unusual at all, is it?
The interviewer wonders if people thought, “It’s just a kid acting up,” echoing the first assumption of the rescuer guy.
Instead of blaming the kid – “acting up”, “being disobedient” – why doesn’t anyone assume it’s the parent being an asshole? And why wouldn’t they intervene if it is a parent?
Okay. Back up.
One of the valuable concepts I’ve learned from social justice activists is the idea of “centering”. Centering is about whose voices and opinions are focused on in a conversation and whose voices and opinions are pushed to the background. Because our culture works so hard to ignore the experiences of certain kinds of people, this concept is important all the time. The voices, opinions, and experiences of marginalized or oppressed people are all too frequently pushed to the side in favor of the opinions and experiences of privileged people.
Children are marginalized people in our society. Adults have a lot of privilege. I’m going to explore the idea of children as an oppressed class in future posts, but if that’s something that interests you right now, this adult privilege checklist is a good place to start reading. For now, I think we can all at least agree that children are smaller and weaker than their adult caregivers, and children have a lot fewer emotional and social resources at their disposal than adults do.
As I said in Compassion for Every Perspective, not everyone can give compassion to everyone else at all times. Sometimes we make choices about who we’re going to side with and how much energy we have for offering our support.
Let’s go back to my McDonald’s scenario from Parenting Isn’t Hard:
Say I’m in a McDonald’s. In a booth near me is what appears to be a romantically involved man and woman enjoying a meal together. Near the end of the meal, the woman accidentally knocks her soda over and it spills over the table and floor. The man leaps to his feet and yells, “Oh my god! I told you to be careful with that!” He grabs her by the arm and drags her out of the booth. “That’s the last time you get to have a medium drink!” He shoves her off to the side while he starts to clean up. “Go stand by the door, we’re going home right now.” After an initial little gasp at the spilled drink, the woman remains silent, body slack, eyes averted.
I would be horrified to witness this scene. I would worry about the verbal lashing, and I would worry about the physical aspects. Probably most people would be concerned on some level. However, when I witnessed that scene with, instead of a woman, a 10 year old child, no one batted an eye. It doesn’t even stand out. Doesn’t register. Some might even consider it “good discipline”.
But, it’s not. It’s just abusive. We would not say about the man, “Well, relationships are hard. He’s probably just having a bad day. Cut him some slack.”
As I said in Okay, Parenting Is Hard, I really do understand it when parents treat their kids in less than ideal ways. There are enormous pressures on parents, and we’re pretty much going it alone. There’s no village. Our society does very little to truly support parents and is also quick to blame parents for any perceived shortcoming in the child.
A separate issue is that our culture does even less to support children. One of the ways in which we don’t support children is when we leave unaddressed the issue of their parents physically and emotionally abusing them.
I do believe that parents deserve far more compassion and support for their situations, even when I think their behavior towards their kids is abusive. However, I think it is more important for me to speak up for the kids who have far fewer voices on their side.
In the issue of parents physically manhandling their children and verbally berating them, I choose to speak out publicly on behalf of children. When I talk about how I see people treating children, I choose to center the perspective of the children.
I hope that others will increasingly do the same.
If I get upset with Dylan and yell at him, grab him, smack him, or belittle him, I hope that my partner and my friends are gentle with me, that they understand where I’m coming from, and that they know I love him. Of course. But for crying out loud, I also hope they don’t just brush it off, act like it’s no big deal, or pretend it’s just all part of the definition of parenting. I hope they instead treat it like a problem that needs to be fixed. My problem that needs to be fixed by me, and by them if it’s something they can help with and something I need help with.
But it’s not Dylan’s problem to fix, except inasmuch as he’s the one stuck being the target. It’s not his “misbehavior” that’s the problem – it’s my anger, or my weariness, or my lack of social support. I hope my friends are his friends, too, and they don’t see him as the right and natural recipient of my violence but instead support BOTH OF US in finding other ways to relate.
I wish my culture didn’t make it so easy to be assholes to kids. But there it is. It’s easy to be mean to your kids. Plenty of people don’t even think there’s anything wrong with being mean to kids. There are multitudes of voices saying it’s perfectly acceptable to yell at your kids, drag them by the arm, call them names, belittle their concerns, etc. And even if you do feel judged and criticized as a parent, as an adult you have lots of support available to you, even if it’s just commiserating with other parents on the internet.
On the other hand, where are the voices sticking up for the bodies, rights, and opinions of the kids? There aren’t nearly as many of those. In fact, too many attempts to speak up on behalf of children are drowned out in favor of centering the viewpoint of the parents or casting the child as the villain.
I repeat, again, for the record, I really do understand that parenting is a difficult job, that parents have bad days, and that parents don’t always live up to their best ideals. I understand that, and I have compassion for parents, including myself when I fall short of my own ideals.
Children need more people standing up and saying that the way the kid in the McDonald’s was treated is wrong. The way the girl in the video up there was treated is wrong. That’s not just “parenting”. It’s violence. It’s mistreatment. It needs to be addressed. I don’t know exactly how to address it, other than to keep looking and to keep talking about it.
But kids need more people on their side, and I’m going to be one of those people.