There’s an unwritten rule between parents, unspoken but implicitly understood:  You don’t comment on, or judge, another person’s parenting. And generally it’s a good rule, because nobody likes feeling judged themselves.  But I learned this week that it makes it very hard to intervene if you see a child being bullied.

By their own parents.

We’re all aware of bullying.  I’ve taught the children in my care to hold up their hand assertively and say, ‘Stop’ if somebody is hurting them.  So why can’t I do that for another child if their parents are being unnecessarily mean?  I suppose the answer is that the other child is not my responsibility.  Or are they? Who is my neighbour?

The other day we were at our local shopping centre, when Birdy pointed out to me a young girl, not more than 3 or 4, who was curled up in the fetal position, whimpering under a shop counter.  Birdy was worried about the girl, who appeared to be completely alone, but when I looked around I saw the parents sitting some way off, yelling at her to come with them.  They were obviously angry and embarrassed that she was having a tanty at the shops.  After shouting at her for some time, they said the line that irks me more than any other, “If you don’t come now, we’ll leave without you.”  And they said it in a nasty way, as if they meant it.

I don’t understand this line.  Either it’s an empty threat, in which case the parent is teaching the child to ignore what they say.  Or the parent genuinely seeks to strike fear into the child’s heart that they will abandon them, which is a truly dreadful thing to do.  (The only exception is when this is said in a light-hearted habitual way, as a warning that you’re starting to get serious about leaving.)  All the parent needed to do was approach the child gently with a friendly hand offered and she would have taken the hand and crawled out.  I have done this a million times, even with children I barely know and it always works, because they sense that it is safe to come out.  And even if it didn’t work, it would be better to pick them up and say “I’m sorry, but we have to leave now, and I won’t leave without you.”  But threatening to abandon a small child is nothing short of bullying.

The child did reluctantly crawl a little way out, but she was still weeping, and her mother, who was still yelling, picked her up and continued to insult her all the way around the supermarket.  I can’t remember what she said, but it was just plain mean.  It was breaking my heart.  I wanted to say to the Mum, “Just give her a cuddle and tell her you love her,” but I didn’t, because we don’t do that.  We don’t interfere with another person’s parenting.  Even when a child is being abused and neglected and insulted in front of our eyes.

I think the reason we’re so reluctant to say anything is because we’ve all had bad days.  We’ve all said things we regret to our children.  We’ve all got angry and yelled when we shouldn’t have.  But the important thing is to apologise, to make up, to have a kiss and a cuddle and tell them you love them.  But this woman wasn’t a bit sorry.  She was totally self-righteous.  In her mind, it was only the child who was in the wrong.

I don’t know what I could have done, but when I got home I felt terrible that I had done nothing to help that child.  So I thought I would ask you (my readers) for your advice.  What would you have done in the same situation?

Have you ever intervened in someone else’s parenting?  What kind of response did you get?  Is there ever a place to make a comment if you think a child is being treated badly or is being bullied?  How can you tell the difference between a parent who’s just having a bad day and one who is really abusive?  What should I have done?

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