Q. I don’t believe in physical discipline of children. It bothers me when I see an out of control parent angrily spanking a child in public. I’ve spoken up a couple of times and been cussed out. My husband says, “You’re not the parenting police.” When should a person speak up? What are some safe ways to intervene?

A. Parents and parenting fall on a continuum from excellent to bad, depending on factors that can change from day to day. Most of us are “good enough” parents striving to be better. Because some parents seriously struggle to care for their children, many of us will at some point witness a situation in which we’ll wonder if we should intervene.

Situations that are life threatening are the ones in which we clearly need to take action. When you see a child left alone in a locked car with the windows rolled up, you can save the child’s life by calling 911 and asking people to call out for the parents in nearby stores. When you see a parent shaking a baby, you need to shout, “Stop!” and tell them they can kill a baby by shaking it.

Recently, the Austin news media reported about small children found tied up in a yard and left alone. A concerned neighbor reported the incident to the state Child Protective Services division, which removed the children from this abusive situation and perhaps saved their lives.

We must act in life threatening situations. Then there are situations like you’ve described, in which there is no eminent, life threatening danger, but the adult’s behavior appears emotionally abusive, humiliating and/or physically painful to a child. These situations cause caring observers like you to react strongly but question what is the best action.

I asked some of the best parents I know if they’d ever intervened publicly into someone else’s parenting. One mother says she witnessed a man towering over a small child, shouting, raising his arm and appearing ready to strike the child. She assumed a prayer pose and started praying out loud about the situation. She says the man “made eye contact, and his eyes got really big.” He stopped shouting and acted more lovingly to his child.

This same mother recalls seeing a child in a locked car starting to go to sleep. She ran into the store and yelled for the person with the child in the locked van to recognize that the child was in danger from the heat. Someone responded and cussed her out. She says, “Next time, I will call the police.”

Another mother states that she has intervened publicly using empathy to soften the situation but still get the point across. This mother saw a parent twisting a small child’s ear, which bothered her a great deal. She walked up to the parent and said, “It’s difficult raising children today isn’t it?” The parent stopped twisting the child’s ear and engaged in conversation. Suggestions from other parents who remember publicly intervening include saying, “Has this been a bad day for you?” or “Could I help you in some way?”

One teacher I know recalls hearing a mother in the school bathroom, yelling at her child and being verbally abusive. A female assistant principal was sent in to “defuse the situation.” Other teachers also told me about “defusing” parents with empathy before talking about the importance of changing behavior.

It takes a lot of people working together to help a child grow up in a healthy, non-abusive environment. Why not be one of those people doing what you can to make it happen?

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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