Witnessing Abuse

About six years ago, I sat behind a car at a red light. It was winter in Minneapolis, so my windows were rolled up. I also had the radio on. But still I heard the woman screaming. I turned down my radio, trying to figure out where it was coming from. It was lasting for almost a minute. And then I saw it—the driver in the car ahead of me was turned around in her seat, screaming at the child in the backseat for spilling Coke in the car. How do I know it was a child? Because the person was so small I couldn’t see the head sticking up above the seat. I rolled down my window to better listen, and heard “fuck” “little shit” “pissed” “Goddamnit.” She didn’t yell. She screamed.

I followed the car into the parking lot of a church—a one-story section of a strip mall. I watched as she got out, as an older child stepped out from the front seat, and as a boy about three years old scooted out of the back. He was crying. He didn’t look angry at his mother. He looked ashamed at himself. The other child just looked sad—the empty kind of sad.

I wrote down the name of the church (no smart phone at the time). I didn’t know then that anyone can call the Dept. of Children & Family Services, that verbal abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse.  I’d never heard or seen anything like it in real life. I thought if I called the church, they would find the woman if they didn’t already know her and do something. But when I got home and called, within five minutes of leaving the parking lot, they didn’t know who I was speaking of. They hadn’t seen the woman I described. Helpless, I hung up the phone. I drove back to the church but her car was gone.

verbal abuseIn the years since, I’ve thought of that little boy more than I can tell you. I’ve hoped that she yelled at him like that again in front of someone else, someone who knew what to do—a teacher or a social worker—and got those children away from that mother, at least for the time being. Because if she screams and swears like that over spilled Coke, what else does she do?

That experience has made me more alert when I’m out in the world and I wish I could say I’ve had no use for my new awareness. But I have—a girl at the lake whose mother loudly berated her, for five straight minutes, for getting her skirt wet as she waded in the shallows on a 95-degree day; a toddler at Target whose father sneered at him for needing a cracker to shut up, then yanked the boy’s ear lobe. In each case, I wanted to wrap the children up and take them home with me, but instead I offered kind words, a dry towel, a reprimand within earshot of the toddler in hopes that the boy would start to learn that his father’s actions were wrong. Small things.

I know departments like DCFS are overloaded and they can’t respond to pulled ear lobes. I don’t know what the answers are. But I feel a responsibility for the children who live in the same world I do. Our culture is too much “to each his own,” even regarding parenting. That philosophy might make sense when it comes to time-outs and breastfeeding–even when it comes to giving your toddler Coke. But not when it comes to any form of abuse. “It takes a village” means helping parents, supporting them, but it also means stepping in when you see them hurting their children.


Enriching Our Children

When our kids were around six months old, some of my friends (whom I love and adore, especially if they’re reading this) enrolled their children in swimming lessons. At the time, they were new friends, so I politely declined their suggestion that I join them. But what I was thinking was, “Hell no, I’m not going enroll my child in a class in which I have to get in the water with him. If I enroll my child in anything, it will be so I can leave to go sit and stare into space for awhile.”

Understanding the importance of (eventually) learning how to swim (which a 6-month-old cannot), my husband and I decided that instead of paying someone to watch us play with our child in the pool, we’d simply take him ourselves so he’d get used to the water. And, you know, once in a while we’d give him a bath.

I consider this “Hell no” line of thinking healthy. But it’s hard not to get wrapped up in all the options we parents have for enriching our children. (Raise your hand if you vomit in your mouth when you hear that word.) A couple years after saying no to swimming, I discovered I’d become wrapped up in the options myself.

A local soccer club offered lessons for three-year-olds. Our son was three, he seemed to like to run and kick things, so we enrolled him. He enjoyed it for the most part, so we continued with the program. Our son had just turned four, which meant he was now part of the 4-5 year-old class, which meant they had Saturday games in addition to practice.

I was excited, moved by memories of my own childhood games (never mind that I was 8 or 9 in these memories). But within the first five minutes of the first game, I knew we’d made a mistake. Why? Two things. First, the constant barrage of “encouragements” yelled out across the field by parents made me want to slip away. Since my son is like me, I knew this was going to be no fun for him. Too many adults were taking this way too seriously. While they weren’t negative, who wants to have people constantly—constantly—telling them to “Kick it! Good job! Grab it! There you go! There you go! Alright, now! Great – yes! Get it, get it, get it!!!”

No pressure, kids. Really. It’s all just fun.

Second, within the first five minutes my son discovered that the other team could, and should, steal the ball from him. This was not covered in practice and it did not align with his current values. So he decided to just walk back and forth alongside the action.

The second game he left the field halfway through. The third game, he sat down smack in the center of the soccer field and stayed there.

Why, you ask, did we have him participate in three games when I knew in the first five minutes that it was a mistake? Because I was wrapped up! Wrapped up in all the options! Organized sports provides exercise, lessons in teamwork, confidence. Didn’t you know? Plus, we had to encourage him to stick things out! (Forgetting that he hadn’t asked to participate.)

But my son unwrapped me. He reminded me, sitting out there patiently by himself in the middle of the field, what I already knew: he will do what he wants when he’s ready. He crawled when he was ready. He walked when he was ready. He sat on Santa’s lap when he was ready. He enjoys soccer practice; he will play a game when he’s ready.

And, anyway, did you also know that, “Although there are sports programs designed for preschoolers, it’s not until about age 6 or 7 that most kids develop the appropriate physical skills or the attention span needed to listen to directions and grasp the rules of the game”? (kidshealth.org)

Just because something good is offered—whether it’s 0% interest or a second donut or a soccer game—does not mean we have to take it.


The inspiration for this post

The inspiration for this post