For whatever reason, my three-year-old daughter tunes into emotions. Whenever she hears someone crying, she always points it out. I've encouraged her to hug people when they cry, to try to help people if they are sad by being kind. Mostly the other kids push her away, but I praise her anyway. I don't want her to be scared of people who are hurting.
Today we walked into a popular pizza place on a beach strip. We were quickly ushered to the crumb-littered section for people with small children. Fine, whatever, I understand. We sat down at a four-top, my daughter and I on one side, my son in the high chair on the end, and my husband on the other side. Directly behind me and my daughter, was a mother and son. They weren't but two feet away because when the little boy turned around, I could see his baby blue eyes. He was probably four.
A minute or so after we sat down I heard the mother scold her son quite loudly. Now, I am not one to judge other parents. Believe me, we are all doing the best we can. My first thought at hearing this was sympathy for her. I know that kind of frustration well.
My daughter, the people watcher she is, tuned into her harsh tone immediately.
Five minutes passed and the woman had now scolded the little boy for turning around, spilling food, grabbing food and talking. Throughout it all, I never even heard the boy's voice. The first time I heard him speak, was through his cry.
That's when my daughter let me know that he was crying.
Ten minutes passed and the mother took him to the restroom. On their way back she was pulling him by the arm and he was crying. They sat back down and things continued just as before.
My daughter was fixated on the toxic exchange between them. She doesn't know enough not to stare so she did, blatantly. "Hey honey, let's color. Look a horse! Hey honey, do you want some pizza? Hey honey, do you want to play with my phone?"
People, if I'm willingly offering my toddler my only access to taking pictures and uploading them to Facebook, then you KNOW I'm desperate to distract her.
Nothing could take her attention away from this mother and son and their dynamic. Each time he cried, she let me know. He cried three times in 15 minutes.
I began the loud passive-aggressive sighs and whiplash head turns every time she spoke to him harshly. She was unfazed. I looked around to see if anyone else was witnessing this scene just to make sure I wasn't being, you know, too sensitive. There was a man sitting with them who was obviously not the boy's father by his complete and total apathy toward what was happening. When I caught his eye he gave me a shrug as though he understood what I was thinking.
I struggled with this mightily. I didn't want to judge this mother. I know what exasperation and frustration feel like with toddlers in public. I have yelled, too. But there was something sadistic in her berating of this little boy. The way he didn't speak loud enough for me to hear, and yet nothing he said was okay with her. They way he looked when he turned around, his sad eyes. He couldn't do anything right to please her and he knew it.
When he turned around my daughter looked straight at him and yelled, "Hey, you turn around." Just like his mother had done minutes before.
I turned to her and said, "No, no honey. You don't talk to people like that. His mommy is talking to him..." And then I stopped and said a little louder, "And I don't like the way she's talking to him, it's not nice."
I cringed a little inside. I was nervous to have said something so judgmental, so loudly.
"But he needs to turn around." She continued.
"No honey, he doesn't. He's okay. I don't like that his mommy is talking to him like that and we don't talk that, do you hear me?" I said it again, this time in a whisper.
My daughter looked confused. We resumed eating, the mother resumed berating.
When moments like this happen this little voice creeps into my head. It was put there by my mother -- a seething hatred of injustice. Then, that phrase starts repeating in my head; the phrase that always comes up when something feels hard, but right... Be the change. Be the change. Be the person you are trying to teach her how to be. BE the change.
The next time she admonished her son I turned around and said, verbatim, doing my best to squelch the anger and judgement I was feeling, "Excuse me. Could you please be nicer to your son. My daughter is mimicking you."
She looked shocked. I must have too because it was the first time I saw her face. Before I laid eyes on her, I judged her. Now that I was looking at her, sadly, I was judging more. She was young. She had Old English tattooed letters up her entire arm and heavy, black eye makeup. She gave me an awkward half-smile and said in a shaky voice, "Um, okay."
For the next five minutes she was nice to him. She changed her tone. She didn't yell or insult him and he didn't cry. It was an uncomfortable five minutes for me and my husband because I had just confronted a stranger and my husband didn't agree with me on this. We tried to act nonchalant, we barely spoke.
I don't know if I what I did was right. I don't know if there was any right thing to do. After all, I was judging her.
I do know that I wanted my daughter to see me stand up for that boy, because I know that your children will do what you do, not what you say. I wanted my daughter to know that it was NOT okay to talk to anyone like that even if it is your mommy. I wanted her to see me say something, because all it takes for evil to persist is for good people to do nothing. Please do not misread me, I am not calling this mother evil. With a little distance from the situation, I actually feel a quite a bit of compassion for her whatever her circumstances may be.
But in that moment, she was not doing right by her son or my observant three-year-old.
That much I know.
But at the end of this day it's not my daughter that I still worry about. It is that little boy. He's just a boy with bright, baby blue eyes and already too many confusing things to figure out in his world. More than my daughter, I wanted him to see me, to see someone, say something.
I don't know if it mattered. I don't know if it was right, but I do know that I don't regret it.
Because if there is one thing I dislike more than embarrassing myself in public, it is regret over what I could have, should have done.
What would you have done?
Shannon Lell is a writer and mother of two small children living near Seattle. She writes introspective essays on personal and cultural topics at www.shannonlell.com.
Photo Credit: meaganjean.
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