Sunday, February 22, 2009


Walking in a store shortly after Christmas, a frequent reader of this column saw a parent "tap" an apparently misbehaving young girl who looked to be about 7 years old.

"I almost followed them to their car to get their license plate and report them," he writes, but decided not to because he didn't want to neglect his own children.

So what is a "tap?"

"It was more than a pat, but less than a hit," my reader says.

He goes on to say that he considers a pat to be a gentle touch, while a tap has the kind of force you might use in swatting a fly, enough to make an audible noise if applied to a piece of wood.

"I wanted to do something," he writes. "But what was the right thing, not knowing what happened before the incident?"

It's a normal impulse to want to ensure the safety of children. It's also common, however, for even a good parent occasionally to lose composure when dealing with a child in a public place.

I make the latter observation not in an effort to condone striking a child, but merely to acknowledge that not everyone who does so is a confirmed child-batterer. Even the most well-intentioned parent can't always control his or her own behavior in trying to control a child -- which my reader knows perfectly well.

"I am not perfect myself," he admits. "I've had my own share of problems to deal with."

If it is absolutely clear that a child is being abused and physically beaten, no one should hesitate to intervene -- or to ask store security to do so -- or, later on, to report the incident. But this episode didn't involve that level of abuse.

In the past, my reader says, when he has witnessed parents who he believes have "crossed the line" by striking or yelling at a child, he has intervened, but gently: He asked the parents, "Is there a problem I can help you with?" or "Do you need help?"

By engaging these parents by offering help, I believe my reader did the right thing. Such an approach is less antagonistic than "He is only a child!" or "Stop beating your kid, you wacko!" The confrontational approach, by placing the parent in question on the defensive, has a good chance of escalating an incident.

In situations such as the one my reader raises, in which you really don't know the specifics of the situation, the ethical response is to engage the parent and let him or her know that others are witnessing what's going on, even if you don't say so directly. The shock of having another adult express concern might force the parent to recognize that "tapping" might not be the best solution to a child's unruliness. Hearing another member of the community offer help or express concern gives the parent a moment to step back and reassess how he or she is behaving.

In this case, my reader's response was proper, proportionate and, yes, ethical. The key phrase in his report of the incident is "less than a hit." If he saw a parent hit a child -- or, indeed, saw any adult hit any child -- he would have a clear ethical responsibility to intervene. Because this case did not rise to that level, his obligation did not rise to the point of intervention.

His concern is understandable, but it is not my reader's responsibility to chase every parent who taps a child out to the parking lot. We should always err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting children, but it's also important to use common sense.

Some parents simply need to reassess how best to discipline their occasionally unruly children and, while my reader may be right in thinking that this parent's approach was inappropriate, it did not reach a level requiring him to take further action.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, I don't mean to start an argument, but your reader seems to be unduly concerned about sticking his nose into other people's business. If he had outwardly taken any kind of interference in this incident, he would be lucky to get off with a dressing down from the unlucky person he was finding fault with and perhaps have ended up being accused of interference in a family situation. This is the result of the politically correct situation we now find ourselves in our country in which everyone seems to be encouraged to stick their noses into people's private business to make sure no one is being abused, when it is your reader who is abusing people by such interference in a private situation.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

Has the world gone completely mad? "Tapping" is not only NOT abuse, I would venture to say that between parent and child it is imminently appropriate - especially when a child old enough to understand behavior limits is misbehaving in public. This man should butt out and save his "concerned citizen" face for children who actually need it. It's hard enough being a parent without having to worry that zealots are going to misinterpret any physical attempt at correction as abuse and report them to the authorities. This is where the failed mania of "zero tolerance" came from - people unable to make distinctions.
There was no evidence according to this article that the child was hurt or in any danger - so why does this buttinsky feel that his services are necessary as if it were? For that matter, why would anyone approach this parent with a "Can I help?" or "Is there a problem?"
It's clear to me that humans know only how to over-react to trends, so that the reaction to genuine child abuse has become an hysterical fear of even touching a child. Remember the child-care witch hunts of the 80s? Haven't we learned anything?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

I am struggling with identifying the original writers' ethical dilemma.

The basis for determining whether one is making an ethical decision (sans self-serving rationalizations) depends on the specific circumstances of the act or omission in question.

In the absense of several factors, including the intent of the adult in question, the actions of the child beforehand, and the generally acceptable legal principles governing the rights of parents (and children) in that locale, one simply cannot determine the ethical requirements of your writer in this circumstance.

Of course, one should not be expected to know if physical harm is occuring to justify intervention, so all persons observing obvious abuse should intervene in some way. The question remains, what is "obvious abuse"?

I say, better to err on the side of caution in protecting a child, but in my opinion, your writer overreacted.

I have umpired little leauge for many years, and sometimes in a situation where people think a call is warranted, in the absenbce of an obvious violation, the best call is to do nothing. Sometimes, as in this case, that's what you have.


Your friend,

Mario Fiermonte
Orange County, Ca.

Anonymous said...

When in doubt of abuse on a child, observing for an extended period of time from afar BEFORE doing anything is best. If you think someone is abusive, you will see it in those minutes watching them carefully. If you don't, you could be dead wrong!

For instance, once I saw a lady speaking very loudly to both her kids as they stood by her SUV in a mall parking lot. I thought it was a bit much when she told them to put their hands on the car and not to move until she got the things in their car (it kind of reminded me of a cop saying the same to a criminal with the tone she used).

Then again, was this just one frustrated parent that had a bit too much Christmas shopping done that day (it was night time and near Christmas, after all), or was it a mom who had lost all her senses and really needed to be picked up by authorities? I didn't notice anything further damaging, so I did nothing.

My daughter, who's fifteen, observed all this as well and told me when we got in the car, "Mom, if you ever treated me like that, I'd probably run away." I almost laughed but stopped myself. I then told her, "Nah, I just couldn't be that way. When you and your brother were young, I held your hands throughout the store. If we didn't get to do that, well, we left the store and that was that." My best success with the kids would be a candy or ice cream stop AFTER the store trip (which I would try and keep at a half hour or less). They were well behaved with that technique, believe me. They knew we'd go home without that if they weren't!

What happened to the loud lady with the kids? She got in the car after getting her kids in there and left. I did too, just about the same time.

Who knows what someone else in my place would have done to that lady? People nowadays want to call abuse on everyone. Wait and observe, then act on your gut instincts, if anyone out there knows what that is. You can't judge by one action alone, I say! A tap in the case your reader mentioned could have been nothing. No one knows because no one but the reader was there to observe. It's a judgment call on the person who is present.

Take care,

Enea Ostrich