Would YOU step in to stop a mother smacking her child in the street One woman tells her unnerving tale…
09:15 GMT, 5 July 2012
We were walking home from a summer fair, my four-year-old son’s hand nestled in mine, when it happened. I saw a woman grab hold of her barely-teenage son’s auburn hair and yank his head back with terrific force.
His shriek pierced the traffic. She yanked his hair again. And again. She was clearly making a point. His knees buckled forward in an effort to release the pressure.
His screams turned into one long shriek. All around, an air of normality continued. Cars drove by, children danced along behind me and my son carried on talking. And she carried on yanking the boy’s hair, her husband standing quietly beside her.
Hitting back: Esther, with her son Tristram, had to step in
I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. And then she slapped him. Across the face. Confident, bold, deliberate. A practised slapper.
The slap stung the sound of traffic into silence — at least to my ears. There were only a few footsteps between her and me. I knew I was going to say something. I couldn’t witness a slap like that and stay silent.
Fleetingly, I thought back to an incident I wrote about in the Daily Mail in January. Back then, I was the mother accused of ‘abusing’ my child after walking off when he had a tantrum, and I’d had to deal with an outsider intervening on a very private situation.
And I tried to remember the key points that I’d learned. Be supportive. Do not judge.
So I stopped in front of the woman, her husband and three children, as I passed them on the pavement. ‘Is there anything I can do to help defuse the situation’ I said, with what I hoped was an open, friendly face.
The woman turned to face me. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her face was tight with fury. ‘He deserves it,’ she said with venom. ‘If he behaves like that he will be punished.’
I looked at her carefully. She had an educated American accent. They looked wealthy — pushing the latest pram, wearing designer jeans and trendy glasses.
Smacking a child hard enough to leave a mark became illegal in 2004. Parents convicted of this face up to five years in prison
Her son’s wet eyes looked at me from under his fringe. I turned to her eldest boy. He was motionless, transfixed.
I looked at the boy. Actually, he must have been about 12. There was no defiance in his eyes, no fight at all. Just a blankness. He was sobbing.
His older brother stood quietly beside his father, while the youngest was still in a buggy. The mother wasn’t apologetic or embarrassed, nor was her husband. This was clearly the norm in this family. I was expected to say my goodbyes and walk on.
But I couldn’t. There was a pause. Then I said: ‘You do realise that you could be reported to child protection agencies for treating your child like that.’
I listened to the words come out of my mouth with a slight horror. I didn’t know how she would react. I didn’t want to put my four-year-old son at risk.
‘Call the police! Call the child protection!’ she hissed mockingly. Her husband joined in: ‘Yes — call the police if you want to,’ he jeered. I didn’t know what I expected when I first stopped.
I just wanted that woman to know that her slap and her hair yanking had been seen. Now I wanted more than that.
I wanted to take away her power, to expose her as a cheap bully who got some kind of relief from slapping and hurting her own children.
How to deal with a naughty child Smacking is now illegal
And I wanted her children to see their mother taken to task. Some pedestrians were coming closer. Another family: children on their scooters, parents carrying bags.
I moved to one side, waiting for them to pass. ‘If you hit your child, you are teaching your child that it’s OK to hit others,’ I said to the woman.
The greater physical distance between us made me feel safer. ‘Don’t think that what your parents do to you is normal,’ I said to him. ‘Most parents do not hit their children.’ He stared at me with huge eyes.
‘Don’t accept it,’ I went on. I couldn’t help it. ‘Your parents should not be hitting you. This is not acceptable behaviour.’
Still, he said nothing. His parents were also silent. I turned to my son, took his hand and very slowly started walking downhill towards the Tube station near Highgate Village in North London.
After a short while the family started to follow. I slowed down even more. I didn’t want them to think I was afraid, or that I was embarrassed or running away.
I wanted them to have to overtake me. I got out my mobile telephone, wondering how I could use it. Should I take a photograph of them The memory on my mobile phone was full.
I couldn’t remember how to delete enough chunks to free up memory for a photograph. I thought of phoning the police but realised I didn’t even know how to do that. It isn’t a case of dialling 999; this wasn’t an emergency.
It was the kind of incident the police would take 40 minutes to turn up to, if they turned up at all. Besides, I wasn’t sure of the ruling on slapping. Are parents allowed to hit their children
I thought of calling the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, but couldn’t stomach the sound of a touchy-feely counsellor on the end of the line.
‘Mummy, what are you going to do Are you going to call the police’ My son was fidgeting alongside me, his little face anxious. ‘Mummy is just thinking. Please give me a moment to think.’
My memory went back to January when I’d been hurrying my then three-year-old son to nursery and he’d been kicking up a fuss. Frustrated and at the end of my tether, I’d pulled him out of his buggy, plonked him on the woodland path we’d been walking along and walked off.
Wailing, he’d been forced to run to catch up with me. And as he did so, a passing woman turned to me and said: ‘You are not fit to be a parent. You don’t deserve to have children.’
Besides, I wasn’t sure of the ruling on slapping. Are parents allowed to hit their children
Astonished, I’d turned to face her, asking, ‘Do you have children yourself’ Yes, she said, grown-up children, and she claimed that she would never have treated them like that. ‘Haven’t you ever made mistakes Haven’t you ever been less than perfect’ I screamed.
‘I was a good mother,’ she said. ‘I never abused my children — unlike you.’ The situation deteriorated to the point where her final words to me were, ‘I hope you never have another child’ and mine to her (embarrassingly), ‘The only reason you’ve got four dogs is because you don’t have any friends.’
I cast a surreptitious glance over my shoulder to work out how far behind me the family was, and whether I needed to be worried.
They were moving along in silence, the mother pushing the buggy, her red-haired son beside her and the father walking behind, his arm around the eldest son.
I slowed down still more. I needed to stay near them. I wasn’t quite ready to let them go. I turned sideways as the family went into single file to pass us.
There was no eye contact from any of them.
They carried on walking, with us following behind, until we came to a fork in the road. They took the left fork. For a few seconds I debated taking it, too. It didn’t take me far away from our route. And it would buy me more time.
But then I thought of our planned day ahead. My parents were having a party. We were late already. Maybe I’d done enough. Besides, what could I hope to do
Two days later, I called the NSPCC helpline and told the woman what I’d seen. It was an assault, she said.
If I’d been able to gather any identifying information, the NSPCC would have given the information to children’s services and advised them to drop round the family house to have a word with the parents.
If I saw the family again, she advised me to look for identifying features which could help social services or police track them down: registration plates on a car, a school uniform.
Or look to see if either parent used a credit card at the till. If they have, they can be traced. Should I try to gather more information on the parents even if I haven’t witnessed a second assault
‘Yes,’ she said. What I’d witnessed was enough to warrant an investigation from social services. I wished I’d been bold enough just to ask for their names and addresses.
It was broad daylight after all, with plenty of people about. If they said ‘No’ it would almost prove my point.
But I’ll know for next time. And I know I’ll recognise her if I do see her again. Her steel-framed eyes are burnt into my brain.