Backseat Parenting: When to Step In

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Debbie Elliott and New York Times Magazine Ethicist Randy Cohen discuss the dilemma of a listener who wants to know whether it's proper to speak to a parent who is verbally abusing his or her child in public.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Summer's over, but this week we'll take one last trip to the swimming pool with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen.

Hello, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (The Ethicist): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Our latest listener dilemma comes from Lori(ph) in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. We have her on the line now.

Hi, Lori.

LORI (Caller): Hi.

ELLIOTT: I understand you witnessed something disturbing at your local pool.

LORI: I did. My young son and I were there. And sitting at a picnic table near us at the snack bar were two other moms with their children. And the mothers were being belligerent to their children. One in particular was just very nasty. Her tone was nasty. The words that she was using were nasty. And I wasn't sure what to do. I come from a home with a parent who was very belligerent and emotionally abusive, and I don't know if that burdens me with more responsibility to speak out when I hear somebody being just downright mean to their child, or if that means that I've done my time with belligerent people and I don't have to fool with them anymore.

ELLIOTT: Do you notice that you see this happening a lot around you?

LORI: I wouldn't say a lot. I would say occasionally.

ELLIOTT: How do you react? What do you do?

LORI: It's very upsetting to me. It makes me angry. I really want to just let the parent have it. But I don't really think that criticizing in a mean way or in a very straightforward way is the thing to do when you have someone who's already very irritated and who obviously is taking their frustrations out on their child. You know, I just don't think maybe it's the best thing to do, to be mean back to them. So usually I do nothing, and that feels wrong and it feels cowardly. So I really don't know what I should be doing.

ELLIOTT: Well, let's get Randy in on this conversation. Randy, does Lori have some sort of a duty to do something when she sees these other mothers yelling at their kids?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think her being the child of belligerent parents herself does not give her any additional moral duty to intervene here. But what it does give her--and we can hear that in the way she tells her story--is additional sensitivity to the suffering of other children. And it's just heartbreaking and frustrating because sometimes--and I think this is one of them--even when you see wrongdoing, there's very little that you yourself can do at that moment. As Lori said, people really resent unsolicited parenting tips. And if these parents have no sense of wrongdoing themselves and you intervene in some way, you run the risk that not only will you be ineffectual at that moment, that they'll take it out on the child later when they get home.

It's kind of a judgment call. Sometimes you find that you can say something very gentle or even something that distracts the parent at that moment, and that's worth doing. But if you think that a parent's having just a bad day and they're particularly frustrated, if you just say, `Oh, boy, it can be really exhausting, huh, the kids? You know, the chlorine, the smell of the chlorine, it's driving me mad'--you know, that little moment that will give them a chance to calm down sometimes does something but not always. And the sad and frustrating news is that I think at that moment there really, in fact, is nothing you can do.

ELLIOTT: Lori, I noticed in your letter that you had the urge to, if not say anything to the parents, maybe say something nice to the children.

LORI: Right, maybe say something to the child like, you know, `I saw you in the pool, and you're a really good swimmer,' or, `You have on really cool swimming trunks,' or just something to try to compliment the child and maybe lift them up a little bit instead of--in this particular case, the mother was really humiliating the child and saying to her friend, `Do you see what he did? Just look what he did.' And what do I do? Do I say something to try to compliment the child in some way and make him feel better about himself? I don't know.

Mr. COHEN: Well, of course, it never hurts to extend kindness to a child, especially at a moment like that. But the heartbreaking news is that you have contact with that child for just a few moments, and that parent's going to have contact with the child all the time day after day, year after year. It's soul-crushing how little you're in a position to do. I mean, if you know the person--sometimes you see this sort of thing among people you know. Then you have a little better chance that you can speak to them another time, when they're calmer, or you can sometimes speak to a family member or someone who's close to them and comment on what's going on. But that nearly never happens.

And, you know, I hear a variation on this from time to time from folks who see a parent strike a child. Like, you're riding on the subway and you see someone slap their child, and it's so deeply disturbing, and there's so little you can do at that moment. I mean, it's not something where you--it wouldn't rise to the standard of child abuse as a legal matter. It's very unlikely that you can have any official authorities intervene at that moment. But perhaps this is a little out of my league. Perhaps this is a question less so about ethical duty because I feel that you have no more ethical duty than anyone else to do what you can to relieve the suffering of the child. But it might be a question for a parenting expert, which I'm certainly not, as my own child will tell you, by the way.

ELLIOTT: Well, Lori, we can hear that you have parenting duties calling you in the background.

LORI: That's right, always.

ELLIOTT: Lori from White Bear Lake, thank you so much for joining us.

LORI: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: If you've got a question for the ethicist, go to our Web site at npr.org and click on Contact Us. Put the word `ethics' in the subject line. And please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, we'll talk to you in about two weeks.

Mr. COHEN: OK, Debbie.

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