Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Is yelling at a child in public abusive?

What would you do if you saw an adult screaming at a child in a public place? Talk to the adult? Call the police? Walk away?

An In the Parenthood reader wrote to me about an incident she witnessed recently and wondered what, if anything, she could have done to help.

There are some large playing fields near our house that are part of a public school complex. They are often used on weekends by soccer clubs and various leagues, both for children and adults, and that is a wonderful thing. On a recent Saturday morning, though, my friend and I were walking near one of the fields and heard some very loud yelling and screaming. I first thought that perhaps an adult male softball team had had some kind of dust-up and that things would get settled quickly. As we walked close to the field, we could see that it was a man and three children, ages maybe 6 to 12, and he was yelling at them as they helped gather up the bases and balls and stuff from all over the field.
There's more:

They were completely cowed by him and the defeat in their little shoulders as they picked up the gear was heartbreaking. Collecting the gear took some time to do and he continued to scream and yell at the top of his lungs the whole time. This went on
non-stop for about 10 minutes; he barely stopped to breathe. They all got in the car and I could still hear him howling at them as they drove away. I think these were his children, not some random team members, but I don’t know... He did not strike or manhandle any of the three.
According to a 2009 study, for many parents shouting has become the new spanking. "If someone yelled at you at work, you’d find that pretty jarring. We don’t apply that standard to children,” sociologist Murray A. Straus, one of the study's lead authors, told The New York Times. Since time-outs and counting to three aren't necessarily effective, and spanking in public is definitely frowned upon, a frustrated parent may berate their kids in an attempt to re-establish their authority -- and if you step in, the anger may be re-directed at you for undermining it. You may be better off calling the police and asking them to bear witness -- and intervene if necessary.

The reader and her friend decided to walk across the field in plain view of the man and the children, to let them know that they were being observed, but the yelling didn't stop. "I wanted to call the police but wasn’t sure if that would have been the right thing to do. Maybe that would make it even worse on the kids later," she wrote. "I was afraid to ask him to stop yelling. Most people would have stopped once they knew there was an audience and that made me think he was too out-of-control to talk to rationally."

It's a tough call. Where is the line between discipline and abuse? And what would you have done in the same situation?

Given the way the kids seemed "cowed" and defeated, I'd probably bear witness and look around for a police officer so I could ask him or her to do the same. And in general, I think there's a difference between yelling at disobedient kids to get in the car and screaming obscenities as a child or calling him/her names. My rule of thumb: If the adult was talking to another adult, would it seem like a heated discussion or verbal assault? If it's abusive for one adult to say it to another, then it goes beyond "discipline" to say it to a child.

But this particular situation also makes me wonder: When we see a woman screaming at her kids in public, does it seem as frightening or abusive? Men who try to help a crying child are often assumed to be causing the problem rather than trying to solve it; are we more likely to consider discipline to be abuse if the parent is male rather than female?

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