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What would you do?


Book on how to intervene in instances of child abuse gives answers

“Mom slaps 1-year-old; flight attendant steps in” cried the headline of an Oregonian article from August 2010. I read it avidly because I, too, have stepped in many times when I encounter what I see as public child abuse. This jet was on its way to Seattle. The attendant took a 13-month-old baby from its mother after the woman slapped the crying child in her face with an open hand.

I wasn’t surprised that those actions set off an intense debate. When and how should bystanders intervene when such an episode occurs? On the one hand, hitting a baby that young is wrong. On the other, the mother was stressed and trapped on the airplane with no way to distract or console the child. The article continues, “It is true that acts of aggression against children in public places are most often ignored.”  Later, a Washington spokeswoman from the Council of Children and Families made a succinct statement: “Simply put,” she said, “most people don’t know what to do.”

Years before that incident, I was one of those people. I was in a supermarket where I witnessed a mother and her toddler. The store was crowded. I had just come through the front door and was moving in the direction of an empty grocery cart as this mother pushed her cart toward the checkout stand. A baby sat in the cart’s child seat and was crying loudly. As I watched, the mother slapped her child across his face, back and forth. The more she slapped, the more the wailing gained volume. A couple of times the mother thrust her face forward and demanded, “Stop it!” after which she began slapping again.

He looked to be less than 2 years old. I watched and listened long enough to feel my anger mounting, my stomach wrestling itself into lumps of discomfort. Finally I said to myself, “I’m not going to let that happen anymore.” She was a much bigger woman than I, and I considered for a moment what my risks were. My heart was thumping hard and my mouth was dry. For a second, I almost resisted moving forward, but that moment turned out to be fleeting. I strode up to her.

“When you keep hitting him like that, you’re reinforcing his crying,”  I said. She looked at me in astonishment. In a nanosecond I concluded that her look had more to do with interrupted communication with her child than the meaning in my words. A fleeting thought, “Dear God, what do I do now?” crossed my mind as she frowned down at me.

“I am a psychotherapist,” I said. “And children this age see your touch — whatever kind it is — as reason to continue their behavior. The more you hit him, the more he’ll keep crying. The behavior you’re trying to stop keeps on as you keep on hitting. That’s why I said you’re rewarding him for crying,” I repeated. I was dimly aware this may have been coming out wrong, but I was counting on her hearing the “rewarding” part.

She stopped slapping him and pushed her cart in another direction, probably glad to get herself and her child away from me. She did look pretty miffed. In fact, if she’d raised one hand and swatted me across the face, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But she stopped hitting him, which was my goal in this, my first intervention.

Now, many years and interventions later, my book “STOP IT! How to Intervene in Public Child Abuse” is available so the public can learn what to do in similar cases. 

Mary Lansing is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center. Her book “STOP IT! How to Intervene in Public Child Abuse” is available on Amazon.com. Book signings are in the works but dates were not available at press time.