I'm sure this has happened to everybody at one time or another, but I keep wondering what you think I might have done about it. I was shopping for groceries late one night ' around 11 ' and I came upon this woman and her two children, a boy who's maybe 3 and a girl who's maybe 5. The boy was crying and the girl looked like she'd been crying as well. The mother appeared to be very angry. I was having trouble finding a particular brand of cereal, so I was in their orbit for a couple of minutes or so, and I couldn't believe the way she was treating them. She called them stupid, she told them if they didn't shut up she was going to slap them, and when the little girl touched a box of cereal, she grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her arm so hard it made me flinch. The kids never said a word.
It was a school night, so I couldn't believe they weren't all at home in bed. But what she was doing seemed beyond neglect. It seemed like abuse. I almost said something to her, but I lost my nerve. It also occurred to me that I might only make things worse for these kids. Once I left, she might take it out on them. Ultimately, I did nothing, but I've felt bad about it ever since. Should I have said something? If so, what? I realized later that, if she lived down the street from me and I knew her name, I would have reported her to the proper authorities without hesitation. So why did I hesitate to say something? Your thoughts, Mr. Right?
Bystander: Yes, we've all been there. I was at a kids' soccer game once and one of the fathers on the opposing team was berating his son from the sidelines. 'Move your damn feet!' ' that kind of thing. So we all started cheering his son on, but that just made the father even madder, culminating in his flipping us the bird. Luckily, they won. But on the way to their car, the guy was still giving the kid hell. I wanted to go over and tell him to knock it off, but 1) he was about twice my size, 2) I'm a coward and 3) the kid had been dragging his feet. Kidding! It's just that I'm a coward.
Here's the thing: With mental abuse, as opposed to physical abuse, it's hard to know where to draw the line. And even some forms of physical abuse ' what I would call physical abuse, anyway ' are entirely permissible in this society. Depending on exactly how hard that woman at the grocery store jerked her daughter's arm, she may either have been abusing or merely disciplining her. Maybe the daughter had been at it all day, raising holy hell. Maybe. Or maybe the woman's husband just took off for Vegas with that floozy from work. Maybe.
The thing is, you don't know the circumstances surrounding what you heard and saw. And nothing short of asking her what was going on would have gotten you that information. Should you have berated her for berating her children? No. But you might have empathized with her, said something along the lines of 'Wow, what a bad day you must have had.' She may have turned on you, called you stupid and jerked you by the arm. But she may have thanked you, agreed that, yes, it had been the worst day of her life and that it wasn't fair to take it out on her kids.
What can I say, it takes a village. And now if you'll excuse me, I need to go find that soccer dad and tell him what an asshole he...ahem, what a bad day he must have been having.
To let my mother know what a lousy job she did raising me, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING St., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206. EXT. 152. OR E-MAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.