When to intervene?

Let me illustrate the scene:  I’m sitting in my allergist’s waiting room for the mandatory 20 minute post-shot monitoring, and I start to hear a conversation from downstairs in the lobby between a father and what sounds to be a 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 year-old.  Below my allergist is a pediatric dentist’s office, and I can tell that they exited his waiting room and came into the lobby.  I hear the father say something about her pushing another kid, I’m not really paying attention at first, but then I hear something that draws all my attention to what is going on below me.  The dad says, “I can’t let you back in there because you’re mean.”

Now, I have major issues with parents who globally criticize their children when the reality is that it is just a specific behavior that needs to be corrected.  Don’t tell a kid “you’re bad” when they just did a bad thing.  Tell a kid “you are ______” enough times and eventually the kid will internalize that ______ and become that.  At the same time, parents are human and imperfect and occasionally in the anger of seeing their kid do something wrong don’t think about what to say before intervening.  I’ve done it myself, and I would hate for all my parenting to be judged only by moments when I was doing it the worst.  So, I don’t think it’s necessary to intervene in that second, but my interest has been captured and I can’t stop listening to this conversation I can hear perfectly downstairs, but where I can’t see the father and daughter.

In about the next two minutes I hear variations on the “you’re mean” statement repeated about every 10 seconds. “You can’t go back in there because you’re mean.”  “You can’t have a toy right now because you’re mean.” “You pushed another baby down.  You’re mean.”  “I’m not going to let you in until you tell me that you’re going to apologize and you tell me that you’re mean.” That last one finally put me over the top and got me mad because I can tell from the babbles from this girl is not old enough to even know what an apology is, and making her state aloud at that age “I’m mean” is not mentally healthy.  I moved to a chair next to the balcony to see if I could see them, but they were still out of my view.

I start running through possible ways I could intervene in my head.  This is definitely not a welfare case from what I’m hearing, but it’s still something troubling.  The other thing that keeps me from just going downstairs and talking to the dad is that the voice I’m hearing is speaking through a Hispanic accent, and that would suddenly turn this intervention I’m running through my head into a multicultural intervention.  Having some stranger but himself into your parenting is bad enough, but if you’re a minority and a random white guy starts telling you you’re raising your daughter wrong; well, that’s a whole different matter.  Also, while I’m not as familiar with normative Hispanic parenting techniques, I did live in the Philippines for two years, and I know that broad criticisms of children when they misbehave are far more normative in that culture.  And cultural normative should be taken into account even when psychological research shows that it is not mentally healthy (besides all psych research is done on middle-SES white people anyway, so it’s debatable that it applies to other cultures).

I decide that I’m not hearing anything that justifies my involvement, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about it while I wait for another 10 minutes and continue to hear more of these “you’re mean” comments to this little girl.  I decide though that I’ll have to walk past these two as I leave, so I can at least look at them and maybe seeing them will help me decide if I should say anything.  Finally, my time is up and I haven’t had an anaphylactic shock, so I get to leave.  I get downstairs and see that my guess at the little girl’s age is accurate, but I was totally wrong about the cultural heritage of these people.  This is a big white guy, bigger than me in fact.  He nonchalantly nodded his head and said “hey, what’s up?” as I get down the stairs and he noticed me looking at him.  No Hispanic accent at all, and then goes back to talking to his daughter in a Hispanic accent.  Who fakes an accent when disciplining their child?

I’m not quite sure how to process this new information, and whether to say anything or not.  I decide to buy some time by getting a drink in the drinking fountain.  It gives me an opportunity to assess the little girl without the dad seeing.  She seems fine.  She’s not scared of her dad and she has no bruises on her arms, neck, or face.  She clearly wants to go back and play with the toys in the dentist’s office waiting room, but she’s not distressed or upset in any way.

I just can’t think of anything to say, no way to jump in and say “Hey, for future reference, just tell your daughter ‘Don’t push other kids’ instead of ‘you’re mean.'”  I leave, saying nothing, but still sitting here on the next day, wishing that I had tried.

I don’t want to live in a society where we all go around assuming that every imperfect parent is an abuser based on minimal snapshots we see of them in stressful situations.  At the same time, I wish there was some way to offer help when a parent might need it.  However, I know that if I were on the receiving end in one of my less-than-stellar parenting moments the fear that this stranger may call CPS or that the stranger may be some pedophile hoping for a chance to touch my kids would force me to rebuff any offered help and leave ASAP.  So outside of any formal relationship with the parent, my personal bar for intervention is very high.  I would probably have to hear legitimate verbal abuse, or see a parent hit a child before I’d involve myself with a stranger.  I wish my bar were lower than that, but I don’t know how to get it there.