I once spent several uncomfortable minutes in a grocery store watching a young mother with her small child. The woman was nicely dressed, probably in her middle twenties. She had two children with her, a little girl of perhaps three or four, and another little girl probably a couple of years older. The woman was kneeling with her face almost touching the smallest girl’s face, and she was threatening the child with the punishment she was going to receive once they left the store. The little girl stood there with her head down and tears rolling silently down her face. The other child seemed unaffected by the mother’s anger.
There was something so strange about the intensity of the woman’s anger and the hopeless attitude of the little girl… AND the way the woman then continued shopping as though nothing had happened. Both little girls stayed close to their mother, not touching anything and not talking. Suddenly the mother turned on the smallest child, grabbed her by the arms, and started yelling at her again, telling her what a bad girl she was and how she was going to be punished for what she had just done, even though as far as I could tell the child had done nothing. With each new threat an expression of pain passed over the little girl’s face. I think the mother might have been squeezing her arms, but it was impossible to be sure.
By this time I was convinced that something was seriously wrong with the mother. Another shopper came up to me and asked if I knew what was going on. We both felt that we needed to intervene in some way. And then suddenly the mother had stopped shouting and was shopping normally again. We continued to watch the woman and child, and we had almost convinced ourselves that we had overreacted to the previous incidents, when suddenly the woman was once again screaming… and once again as far as we could see the little girl had done nothing.
It was a great relief to both of us when just at this moment a policeman appeared. He went directly to the woman and told her to be quiet and that he needed to talk to her outside. We found out later that the screaming incidents had been going on in the store for some time, and one of the clerks had called the police. We all watched the policeman take the woman to her car and we could see them talking and the woman crying. Obviously whatever she told him convinced the policeman because eventually she drove away, and after a few minutes he did too. I hope that all the woman needed was a warning and that someone official will be checking regularly to see that this little girl is OK.
This incident has left me with a big question. When should you get involved? The abuse didn’t seem to be physical, but everyone watching felt it WAS abuse. If the policeman had not already been called, would we have had the courage to question this mother’s actions to her face?
And by doing so, would we have made things worse for this little girl?