Bearing Witness: Child Abuse on Public Transit and Our (Lack of) Response

In these stressful, sudden, complicated, public moments with strangers -- what is our responsibility to the little one who was just hit? What's our responsibility to the parent?
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The cold metal doors of the subway car open for a merciless 9 seconds. She pushes, lifts, and drags her 3 children, stroller and bags onto the train. The smallest one is crying. Loudly. Exhausted eyes veil a whirlpool of embarrassment, anger, hurt, desperation, and thoughts about whomever or whatever is on her mind. An older sibling who has a hard time sitting still, gets up from the seat he is sharing with his brother. He's running and jumping and not listening to his mother.

A loud slap and a scream pull the eyes of onlookers away from their books and smart phones for a quick glance. And then we look away and continue on with our commute.

I retreat to my thoughts as I repeat internally a vow that I have made too many times before:

"The next time I see a parent hit a child like that, I'm going to say something."

But I don't. I sit there quietly just like the rest of the train. Is it because the situation is more complex than it seems? Because I can see her side of this too? Or is it because I lack the courage to speak up about something that seems abusive? Perhaps my inaction is simply a sign of the times -- where we all keep to ourselves minding our own business without interference, assistance, or care in the lives of those around us?

What is my and my fellow passenger-witnesses' responsibility on that train or bus? At nearly every Baptism or Dedication that I have attended or presided over, the notion that we are all responsible for the raising of a child is always reinforced. The old proverb that "It takes a village to raise a child" echoes in my mind -- especially as I reflect on all of the help that my partner and I have received over the years as we've tried to raise our girls. But in these stressful, sudden, complicated, public moments with strangers -- what is our responsibility to the little one who was just hit? What's our responsibility to the parent?

This is a difficult and delicate situation. As I reflect on these moments of public discipline which in my opinion go too far, I hear and feel a range of arguments.

"It's none of your business how other people raise their children."

"You have no idea what that mother is going through right now."

"If you were in the circumstances that she is in, you might lose it and cross the line every now and then too."

When it happens, I struggle with what to do. What is my role as a witness? How should our society bear witness to scenarios like this one? Are we passively silent or do we stand in the gap and speak?

And say what?

I have seen this play out dozens of times with families from various ethnic groups. These brief moments are intersections of class, race, and gender that have years and generations of history contributing to them. They are very complicated and do not have any simple solutions.

When discussing this piece with a child psychologist friend of mine, he explained the great damage that may result from situations like this. He described how children know that they are "on stage" and that the embarrassment is doubled after being hit in public. This is why many parenting experts encourage parents to discipline their children in private, for even a scolding or firm correction in front of others can have negative and unintentional consequences.

Yet, worse than that, the psychologist shared that these moments teach children dangerous and harmful ways to deal with frustration or conflict in their lives. They are taught that when someone will not listen to you and if your words are not effective, than using violence is a legitimate response.

The greatest problem, however is that what is happening is not discipline. It is punishment. The word discipline is from the same root as disciple and they both connote teaching. Punishment is not meant so much as to teach as it is to serve as a consequence to end a behavior. Nothing is learned from a swift slap. No one is discipled through such actions.

In preparation for this post, which I have been hesitant to write, someone who I shared a draft with told me to be very careful and to tread slowly. She reminded me of the particular perspective and the privilege that I have in my social location. It is easy for me as a married middle class man with two girls in a great public school that we walk or drive to everyday, to pass judgment and project my opinions here.

One might argue that projecting my standards and the norms of my life onto another person is both unfair and patronizing. On the other hand it might also be argued that when incidents that cause harm to or endanger children occur in public, those present have a responsibility to act when we are able to. It's an interesting ethical case that I can explore and unpack all day. I feel more comfortable dealing in hypothetical situations, but I will most certainly be brought back to the concrete reality in the coming weeks. And I still do not know what I will do or say that next time I see this happen. At this point I am moved and heartbroken to at least care and to try and bear witness. Part of my role as an onlooker is to bear witness not only to what just happened in front of me, but to the struggle of the parent, of which these incidents are just symptoms.

Maybe our role is to say something in the moment, or maybe it is to be a caring grace-filled presence in the lives of the children around us. Or perhaps we can try to alleviate the strain and to lighten the burdens which cause strain on the parents -- a strain that is sometimes the cause of violence towards their children. To me, this is potentially very important work of groups that work on "behalf of the family." Those national organizations that produce information on parenting and marriage while lobbying politicians around policy that they believe impacts family, should also be working to make life easier on those struggling to raise their kids. It is easy to write about the right and wrong thing to do when raising a child, but if someone is forced to work multiple jobs and raise more than one child by themselves, it can be hard to remember to give a warning, then take him to the timeout chair -- especially when running late on public transportation.

Speaking up in the moment may present some risk. Earlier this summer, a situation like the one I described above occurred in Philadelphia. A woman hit her son on a public transportation bus after he was running up and down the aisle. Another passenger apparently told her that what she was doing was "child abuse." After some words were exchanged the mother called someone and a few stops later a group of men were waiting at the bus stop. After the mother pointed out the man who spoke up, she got off and two men pulled out semi-automatic weapons and shot into the bus. The driver sped off and miraculously no one was injured. The chilling video below taken by surveillance cameras captures what words cannot.

Painful and disheartening for so many reasons. The world around that young child, the lack of judgment of the mother, the reminder of urban violence, the problem with guns on our streets, the need for alternatives to violence are all things that came to mind after hearing this tragic story.

This post is not bringing any answers. I don't know what I'm going to say the next time I see this happen. I do know that I/we, even if we don't say something, must do something. We can't just sit there and act like it's not happening. What kind of witness would that be? What kind of message would that send to our children?

Maybe the answer is to act before the situation happens. A dear friend of mine who also takes public transportation says that what she has seen and done is to get up and help that sister onto the train and then help her and her kids get settled. She can see these situations developing and she tries to defuse them and intercede before it gets out of control. Offering to carry a bag, to give up a seat, or to help lift a stroller seem like simple gestures. Yet, while they won't necessarily change someone's circumstances, they can change a moment.

I think I'll remember that simple act of kindness next time. It does take a village doesn't it?

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