Baltimore, MD

What Is a Bystander’s Role Witnessing Parents Beat Their Kids?

Ryan Fan
A couple days ago, I was driving home, parked across the street, where I had to walk through a park on my way to my apartment. At the time, I was on my phone with my girlfriend, when I saw a couple adults and about 10 kids at what seemed to be an outdoor birthday party — a typical scene for me.

However, as I got closer, the voices got louder. A mother was shouting at her son, and the shouting quickly turned into a whole lot of cursing. I heard “fuck” shouted at least five times within a ten-second span, and on the phone, my girlfriend asked me, “Ryan, what’s going on?” I hung up and told her I’d call her back. The mother then started slapping her son and hitting him, and continuing to shout profanity-laced “what is wrong with you?” At the time, I just wanted to get home. I had things to do, and I made sure not to make any eye contact with the situation.

But I was only about 10 feet away from the mother and the group of kids when the mother slapped the shit out of the kid. It was really hard not to notice — and not only was I in the vicinity, but two other adults and about nine kids were as well.

No one intervened. No one did anything. I want to say that I wanted to intervene — but I seriously just didn’t want to get involved. I told my girlfriend about the situation and that it bothered me, and she echoed the same sentiment not to pass judgment.

I was reminded of an incident at my school last year. A girl had gotten suspended, and then her mom came up to the school physically, and beat the shit out of her in front of all her peers. I didn’t see it, but I heard about it, and my students cried about it all class as their friend got transported to the hospital.

It got me to think — what is a bystander’s role witnessing parents beating their kids?

I am not a fool. I am well aware that many parents have old-school methods of hitting their kids. One of my students last year had to beg me to stop calling her mother about behavioral issues in the classroom — because her mother would hit her every time she heard she’d done something wrong. That put me in a very morally conflicting situation where I was legally obligated to report it, but I’m not quite sure what happened afterward.

As a kid, I was rarely hit. My parents hit me maybe twice or three times that I can remember, and they were all egregious instances of misbehavior on my part. My older brother got hit a lot more from what I heard, but my parents softened their discipline tactics once I was born as their younger son.

I remember when I went to my Polish-American’s neighbor and friend’s house when I was 11 one time, and told him that I was planning on getting him a present for his birthday. He was 15, and I was 11. Once we stopped talking and he closed the door, I was about to walk away, and then I heard him screaming “mom!” in Polish while his mother screamed at him and beat the crap out of him. I went home, feeling terrible, and his younger brother, who I was closer with, told me that it was essentially my fault that his mom was beating him — she thought he was asking a younger kid (me) for presents.

In witnessing this mother curse out and spank her kid, I don’t know what the right solution would have been. Before you say it, calling the police would have been out of the question. It never even crossed my mind. I live in Baltimore, which is a majority Black city. Everyone person at the gathering was Black. For me to call the police on a Black mother having a very bad day and infringing my moral qualms on how to parent would have been out of the question for very obvious reasons.

But my intrinsic “don’t get involved and don’t say anything” default response isn’t good either. That means I was pretty complicit in child abuse.

I am no fool. I know people spank their kids. I have had friends who openly admitted to spanking their kids, and I am not a parent, so I never thought it my right to infringe on other people’s business. The Pew Research Center found that one in six parents over the age of 18 have spanked their kids at least once.

What was jarring to me was how publicly the mother was hitting and cursing out her son. No, it’s probably not better that it happens behind closed doors most of the time, but as Christ Newlin, the executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center says,

“If someone is being abusive to a child in public, just imagine what happens behind closed doors.”

Dan Duffy, president and chief executive of Prevent Child Abuse America, says he firmly believes that “if you see something, say something.” Many experts and advocates against child abuse say it’s better to intervene than let the situation deteriorate. Newlin advocates calling law enforcement like you normally would if you saw a fire or a car accident. Another expert, Dr. Jeffrey Gadere, a clinical psychologist and professor of behavioral science at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, says to make a call if a child is in imminent danger.

“You may feel guilty that you may be getting that parent in trouble, or that you may be making a mistake and misinterpreting the situation…However, think about how inaction can lead to the injury, danger or death to the child. Now think about that guilt,” Gardere said.

However, all of these action steps neglect that sometimes, the systems that are supposed to protect people, especially children, actually might end up harming them. You have to live under a rock to not know that community distrust of law enforcement is at an all-time high, particularly in a majority Black city. Dr. Lolita M. McDavid, the medical director of child advocacy and protection at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital said it’s a balance:

“You do need to acknowledge the right of parents to discipline their child within limits.” However, in a situation where the child is “truly being hurt or assaulted, you do need to step in and do something about it.”

Christopher Mele at the New York Times reports on the actions of a woman named Erika Burch, who were at a Walmart in Cleveland, Texas, where they saw a man have his daughter’s hair tied to a shopping cart. Burch and her husband spoke to the man to get him to stop, and then intervened and called 911. The police then handled the situation. In the words of Burch’s husband:

“This is what is wrong with America today…Everybody’s too scared to get involved anymore.”

As a teacher, I am a mandated reporter. I remember I had to report to my social worker various incidents, including a student talking openly about suicide. The student got incredibly upset at me for telling someone and “lying” on her, saying it was all a joke, but it was my job. But in terms of witnessing parents hit their kids, I was just an ordinary person and bystander. If we feel it best to intervene, there are two rules Mele gives for intervention:

Professor Folusho Otuyelu, an assistant professor of clinical social work in New York, said not to be angry, stern, or confrontational. She suggests being warm and friendly and even asking the parent if he or she needs any help. Despite having a warm tone, be very firm in telling a parent the child could get very hurt and the behavior needs to stop.

Darleen Simmons, a public health educator at Saint Paul Ramsey-County Mental Health says that the bystander personally needs to collect themselves before they talk, and withhold judgment from the parent:

“It really starts with no one as a parent wants to be told we’re doing something wrong or we’re a bad parent.”

Essentially, communicating compassion and care even in a difficult situation is what all experts urge us to do, using lines like “do you need any help?” or “hey, are you OK?”

Frankly, all of these steps sound good in theory, but the next time I see a parent beating his or her child, I don’t know if I will intervene and insert myself into the situation. I just don’t. Each situation dictates its own needs, and I looked back two minutes later to check on the gathering — everyone was walking together down the block, and the beating had fortunately stopped.

I find myself in a huge moral gray area. I have always respected other people’s independence of lifestyle, and as I’ve gotten older, respected people’s styles of parenting, because it’s not my child. I’m pretty firmly against trying to tell other adults what to do in general and prided myself on that. When I walked by the situation, averting eye contact, I remember thinking “I have enough of my own problems.”

I don’t know what the right thing to do is the next time I witness a parent hitting a kid that publicly — but it’s probably safe to say that doing nothing is probably not the right solution.

Photo from timkraaijvanger on Pixabay

Originally published on October 2, 2020 on An Injustice!

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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