Raising Children

Quo Primum
DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS Question 27: Should one intervene when parents mistreat their children? In public places, especially in supermarkets and other self-service stores, I often see parents …More
Question 27: Should one intervene when parents mistreat their children?
In public places, especially in supermarkets and other self-service stores, I often see parents mistreating their children, either verbally or physically or, sometimes, both. For example, not long ago I saw a little girl, three or four, being slapped by her angry father; he was holding her firmly by the shoulder with one hand and slapping her with the other, at the same time harshly scolding her. The child, terrified and in pain, was wailing for her mother. I felt I should intervene, but, not knowing what to do, simply stood there watching. The man scooped the child up and headed for the exit, all the while continuing to scold her. I followed them out and saw the man toss the child into the back seat of his car, pick up his wife, by now standing in front of the store, and drive off.
What should you do in a situation like that? Should you intervene, and, if so, how? The parent is likely to take anything you say or do as meddling. That may even provoke the parent into worse abuse and probably will draw his or her wrath upon oneself. But it seems wrong to stand by and do nothing, for, if you were in the child’s place, you would want somebody to come to the rescue.
I suppose just about everyone sometimes encounters such situations, but nobody I have talked with knows what to do. It seems to me that the question really is difficult and worth considering.

This question concerns the application of norms regarding admonishing apparent sinners. Intervention is not warranted unless one is confident the adult’s behavior is objectively morally wrong. When intervention is warranted, one should try to identify cases in which public authorities probably would intervene. If an adult’s treatment of a child certainly is morally unacceptable, yet not such that the authorities would be likely to intervene, one should communicate with the adult. In such communication, anger and self-righteousness must be avoided; one’s sole purpose should be to help the parent, the child, and their relationship. If possible, one should do or say something likely to induce the adult not only to moderate his or her present behavior but to reflect on it afterward and, perhaps, amend it.

The reply could be along the following lines:
The parent-child relationship is both important and delicate, and a family is a bit like a circus troupe doing a high-wire act together. Even if there are real inadequacies on the part of one or both parents, outsiders’ well-intentioned efforts to help matters risk weakening the relationship and upsetting the family with little real benefit to the children. Therefore, neither public authorities nor concerned individuals outside the family should intervene unless the need is clear. Moreover, if an intervention is essential, every effort should be made to minimize harmful effects on the family, and generally interventions should be limited in scope and directed toward encouraging and helping parents to fulfill their responsibilities.
In some cases, mistreatment of a child is so severe—for example, likely to break bones or do some other serious injury—that reasonable people would agree that anyone who can stop the violence should do so, even using force if necessary. Apart from such cases, though, it would be fruitless to intervene physically to stop mistreatment, since physical force will not alter bad parental attitudes and habits. Moreover, using force might violate the law and render a person intervening vulnerable to a civil lawsuit. In what follows, then, I deal only with less severe cases and assume physical intervention is excluded.
Less extreme instances of real or apparent parental mistreatment of children vary greatly in their seriousness. Cases you encounter in the future will not be exactly like the one you describe, but only more or less similar. Thus, your question really bears on a spectrum of cases, not all of which call for the same kind of response. First are instances so severe that the public authorities probably would intervene if they were aware of what was happening. Second are instances in which parental behavior certainly is unreasonable and unfair to a child, yet not so severe that the public authorities would take action. Third are instances in which you or other observers find a parent’s behavior repugnant and think it inappropriate, but it may not be unreasonable and unfair.
Cases of the third sort occur due to two factors, either or both of which can be at work in any given instance. First, sometimes a child misbehaves, a parent observes the misbehavior and punishes it, the child acts as if he or she were suffering far more than is really the case, and bystanders unaware of what prompted the parent’s action feel sorry for the frustrated and suffering child. Second, the treatment of children varies considerably in different cultures, including those of different groups living in the …