Sunday, September 04, 2011

Put your hands on the hood and your shopping bags in the car

As she and her daughter were returning to their car in a Southern California mall's parking lot in, E.O. writes that she saw a woman near an SUV speaking very loudly to her young children.

"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 all of the things they had purchased into the car," E.O. writes. The mother's tone "kind of reminded me of a cop saying the same thing to a criminal."

E.O.'s 15-year-old daughter also witnessed the incident and said: "Mom, if you ever treated me like that, I'd probably run away." They laughed and E.O. assured her she couldn't ever treat her that way.

Still, she never considered calling the mother out on abusing her children, and believes others should wait and observe before doing anything. "If you think someone is abusive, you will see it in those minutes watching them carefully," E.O. writes. "If you don't, you could be dead wrong."

Perhaps, E.O. figured that since she witnessed the event around Christmastime, this mother might have been just another frustrated parent who had had a bit too much holiday shopping that day. "Or was it a mom who had truly lost all of her senses and needed to be picked up by authorities?" she asks.

"I didn't notice anything further that was potentially damaging to the children, so I did nothing."

E.O. recalled that her method of controlling her daughter and son when they were younger and shopping together was to hold their hands throughout the store. If that proved impossible, they left the store regardless of whether they had finished shopping.

"My best success would be telling the kids there would be a candy or ice cream stop after the store trip," she writes. "They were well behaved with that technique, believe me. They knew we'd go home without the treats if they weren't!"

The loud lady with the kids got into her car and left without further incident. E.O. and her daughter left just about the same time.

"People nowadays want to call abuse on everyone," writes E.O. "Wait and observe. You can't judge by one action alone, I say."

Still, she asks "What should someone else in my place have done to that lady?"

When E.O. writes that "she did nothing," that's not entirely accurate. After witnessing the unusual parenting of the mother, she waited and observed. Had she seen any truly abusive behavior, she then could have either decided to intervene or to call for someone to help. Because she didn't, she took no further action.

All parents find their own way to manage their children's behavior. E.O. held hands. The parking lot mother wanted to know where her children's hands were, as well, albeit in a less-nurturing manner. Ultimately, she may just have been trying to keep her children safe in a busy mall parking lot.

E.O. did the right thing by not jumping to any conclusions and instead trying to discern if there truly was a problem that placed the other mother's children in danger. We shouldn't turn a blind eye when we witness others who are in need of help, but we shouldn't jump to conclusions about people's behavior either based on one odd, but ambiguous action.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Dava said...

As someone who works in retail with a busy parking area, I've seen many hyper kids run out of the store and into the lot while the parent is busy attending to finishing up the sale, gathering other kids, etc. It's a scary sight, so that mother may actually have had some fear, anger and frustration with her kids. Personally, I think that the concept of "hands on the hood" until everything was put away was clever, if not the gentlest act of parenting. One thing I do question is bribing kids with treats for good behavior.

I think "waiting and seeing was admirable.

Anonymous said...

I agree with E O, and you, and Dava adds further good insight. Her idea with the hands is actually quite innovative. Alternatives like leaving them home unsupervised are certainly worse. As for the opinion on the "bribe", it may be something the parent wants to do anyway and, like it or not, it is a reward for good behavior.
Doing what one is told by an authority figure is a major part of life and so be it.
Should E O have reported it to whomever one reports this stuff to, it may have caused more harm than good.
As an aside, I live with a fine lady who was abused as a child. Physically by her dad and sexually by her dad's friends and step dad. It is very bad and leaves resentment forever. My "spoiled" upbringing is mentioned occasionally because I was not wakened for school by being dragged by my hair out of bed or punched in the stomach. There is not much of a good solution for that.
E O was correct in watching and also correct in doing nothing.
By the way, my young aunt was killed by a truck crossing the highway as she held her brother's hand and in full view of her father and all of the men he worked with as they left the tool shop. The pain of losing the only female child never left the family. Not quite the same thing as this was an accident caused by not thinking about the cars but it proves caution and training is beneficial.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the letter writer was correct in the "wait and see" approach , but I do want to point out that the SUV driver most likely didn't care where the childrens' hands were- while they were touching the vehicle, they couldn't run into traffic.

Bill Jacobson said...

I think EO is reading a lot into this situation that really isn't there. I seriously doubt that the mother having her kids place their hands on the car until she was done loading the car was intended as an act of humiliating the kids (who would not make the connection to the police search technique) and CERTAINLY does not come close to amounting to abuse. If she had reported this to a cop she likely would have been blown off.

This is very likely simply a situation where the mother was seeking to keep the kids safe while she needs to take her eyes off them in a busy parking lot. I would call that good parenting. EO'S own bribing her kids is more ethically questionable than the technique this mother used.

I applaud EO for being watchful and being willing to step in if something actually crossed the line into abuse, but this situation didn't come close.

Sometimes it is better to focus on the plank in your own eye rather than the speck of sawdust in your brother's....

Bill Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Abusive? From the example, that is hardly abuse. Especially in these days when you have no idea of the reaction of someone you might interfere with in the control of their child, it is best to stay out unless you actually see actual abuse, as in excessive cruelty, hitting the child so as to injure or excessive or cruel verbal badgering of the child. You might have every good intention of helping and end up incurring the wrath of someone who is unbalanced and might react by harming you.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

I did something similar when my children were young. They were expected to behave without bribery. As we approached the car after shopping I'd playfully say "stand on the line!" and the kids would stand on the parking line between cars so I could get them and our purchases safely secured. No passerby ever suggested that this is child abuse, but I remember several occasions where strangers complimented my children on their behavior. I do, however, appreciate that someone is paying attention and noticing when a child may be abused and in need of help.

Anonymous said...

I am slightly horrified by the letter-writer's reaction. I have a two year old with whom I employ the hands-on-the-car trick all the time in parking lots. My daughter certainly isn't humiliated, and it has taught her what a reasonable distance from me in a parking lot is. What would be abusive would be to let her run amok when cars are present.