The tantrum conundrum: Is it ever right to intervene when another parent has lost control One mother shares her very traumatic experience
You see a mother yanking her three-year-old son out of his pushchair and plonking him on a muddy path in a wood. She is clearly angry, though she doesn’t yell at the child. Instead, she strides on ahead, leaving the boy to run alongside her in an effort to keep up.
What do you do Do you offer to help – and risk getting harangued for interfering — or do you walk on
It’s a dilemma many of us have faced when confronted with the sight of a parent who appears to be treating their child too harshly.
What would you do when confronted with the sight of a parent who appears to be treating their child too harshly
Except this time I was the mother in question, and what happened to me, as I was taking my son Tristram to nursery school recently, left me reeling.
‘You are not fit to be a parent’, said the woman who confronted me with a look of disgust on her face. She followed her remark with: ‘You don’t deserve to have children,’ before finally hammering her point home with: ‘I hope you never give birth to another child.’
I couldn’t quite believe my ears. In shock I stopped my buggy.
‘Do you have any idea of the context behind what you’ve just seen’ I asked my accuser. Her middle-aged face was bent with contempt. With her were four Rottweiler-type dogs.
One third of parents say they don’t discipline their children in public in case others think they are too harsh
‘No,’ she said, in a voice that was clearly educated. ‘All I know is that you shouldn’t have manhandled your child out of his buggy. Nor should you have forced him to run alongside you. He is too young. Someone has got to stand up for the safety of our children.’
Now perhaps I should have taken her point with equanimity and grace. If I’m being honest I only had myself to blame for the situation that led me to lose patience with my son.
If I’d left home 15 minutes earlier the likelihood is that our journey would have been the usual calm, joyful mother-and-son-time that I try my best to create, filled with the pleasures of spotting scuttling woodland creatures, listening for woodpeckers and munching toasted breakfast sandwiches on a bench.
But today I’d got it all wrong. We were running late and I was rushing him too much in an effort to get him to nursery on time. I hadn’t allowed him to walk along his favourite wall. Then I’d agitated him to ‘keep moving’ when he bent down to pick up a leaf for me.
As a result Tristram had gone on strike, plonking himself down on a woody path. I persuaded him to sit back in the pushchair. But as he turned away in protest, he said: ‘You’re not my mummy. You’re just mean.’
Sharon Butler, remembered travelling on a bus with her six-month-old baby who was crying loudly
I never shout at my son. Instead I bit back my fury, stuck my hand under his armpit and yanked him out. Not great. But did I really deserve to have a perfect stranger be so damning about the life I share with my son In front of my child On the basis of a split second’s action in a fraught moment
‘Do you have children yourself’ I asked her, trying to control the tremble in my voice. Surely only a non-parent would demonstrate such a willingness to judge.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Two.’
‘Haven’t you ever made mistakes Haven’t you ever been less than perfect’
‘I was a good mother. I never abused my children — unlike you,’ she said. Until then I’d only been half-engaging, still numbed from the shock of her opening words. But in those few seconds I thought of the struggle my husband and I went through to conceive, our utter joy when our son was born, and my readiness to do anything to stay at home to take care of him — and my fury let rip.
‘What makes you think you have a right to comment on me as a mother’ I exploded. ‘How dare you judge me.’
To which she replied: ‘You are clearly not coping.’
I’ll draw a veil over what happened next, only to say I was left sitting on a pile of damp leaves with tears streaming down my cheeks and a confused little boy in my lap, trying to comfort his mother. And somewhere along the line the words ‘ugly old cow’ escaped my lips, followed by: ‘You’ve only got dogs because you don’t have any friends.’ Comments I have regretted ever since.
I arrived at my son’s nursery still shaking from anger and shock. I dropped him off, then gathered a couple of mums together to go for a cup of tea. They, too, had their stories to tell.
Sharon Butler, 33, a full-time mother of a three year old, remembered travelling on a bus with her six-month-old baby. ‘He was crying,’ she explained. ‘I didn’t pick him up to comfort him because I was getting off in two stops time. But then a woman started shouting at me: “Pick your baby up! Just pick your baby up!”
‘I was mortified. The clear implication was that I was an uncaring mother, oblivious to the needs of my child. But she didn’t have to shout at me from across the bus, she could have offered to help.’ So is it ever right to intervene in the way a mother treats her children Despite my experience, my brain says yes. Child safety should mean more than parental dignity. I believe in the idea that we all share a responsibility for each other’s children.
The clear implication was that I was an
uncaring mother, oblivious to the needs of my child. But she didn’t have
to shout at me from across the bus…
As a psychologist specialising in children Professor Judy Dunn, from Kings College, University of London, has spent more than 40 years watching children in their daily routines at home for her research. It has made her very reluctant to judge mothers who appear to be struggling.
‘I think there is a danger in focusing on just one aspect of the way they behave with their children,’ she explains. ‘It ignores the complexity of mothering.’ She adds: ‘I spent a while observing a one-legged mother who lived on a very poor housing estate. She was delightful with her two-year-old and was always cheerful and animated. But her ideas about discipline were so different from my own.
‘If her child wet the bed, she would smack her. Right in front of me. She said to me: “I cannot manage to stay sane if I’m dealing with wet sheets.”
‘I thought to myself: “Who am I to lecture her when she is struggling” The fact is that the majority of the time she was lovely with her little girl. I felt very humbled.’
Hearing Professor Dunn speak so kindly, I feel a flush of guilt. I’ve only ever intervened once — before I had Tristram. And I didn’t display any understanding or compassion. It was rush hour. A young mother was sitting on a seat, with her three-year-old daughter in a pushchair. The girl started kicking her mother in the shins. The mother told her not to. The girl carried on.
‘Shall I show you what it feels like’ said the mother finally losing patience and kicking her back. The child cried out but still carried on kicking, and their battle began to escalate. I couldn’t help myself. ‘Isn’t there another way you could discipline your child’ I burst out.
The mother wrenched herself round to face me. ‘Why don’t you mind your own effing business!’ The train stopped at the next station. She got out, still yelling abuse at me. It was my stop, too, but I decided to stay on the train.
I waited until the doors closed before turning to my fellow passengers, most of whom were men in their 30s and 40s. Family men. ‘Why didn’t you say something’ I asked them. Three of them didn’t think it appropriate to intervene. The mother was clearly having a tough day. But I wasn’t a mother back then and was disgusted that they hadn’t backed me up.
Now, especially in the light of my own experience, I cringe when I remember how black and white I thought the issue was. But however much I loathed that woman for denouncing me in the woods, I’m actually glad she did it.
Since then I’ve made a point of leaving 15 minutes earlier so my son and I can wend our happy way through the woods, treasuring each bird and stick, singing all the way.