Should You Step In When a Parent is Yelling at Their Child in Public?


Sierra wrote last week about how annoying it can be when strangers (especially childless ones) offer parenting advice.  Sierra’s suggestion to would-be experts?  Rather than criticize, “think about what you can do to help.”  That’s exactly what a training program in Pittsburgh is teaching people to do.

One Kind Word instructs nurses, zoo and grocery store employees and others who deal with the public how to make a struggling parent feel supported, rather than judged, in a stressful moment.  Their mission, to “make a difference when parenting gets tough,” centers around the idea that saying something positive and sympathetic to a parent in need will not only distract or reassure them, but may also protect a child from getting hurt.

The Pittsburgh Zoo has been using One Kind Word diffusion techniques for years.  Chris Churilla, of the Visitor Services department, says, “A parent might be a little heated and yelling at the child, and we’ll go up to them and just (say), ‘I hope you had a good day, I think somebody’s going to sleep really well in the car on the way home,’ and we always make sure to say it sure to say it with a smile.”  

One Kind Word’s website is full of tips, like, “Sometimes just a kind, supportive look can be all that is needed to let that parent know that it’s okay.  A wink or a smile can mean a lot to a stressed out parent.”  I’m surprised this isn’t more instinctual or commonplace.  I’ve always been a wink and a nod kind of girl.  (Then again, to a frustrated parent who doesn’t need one more thing to process, I may just look like a crazy lady floating by with a twitch.)

It’s important to consider, before you step in – even to offer a bit of cheer, whether or not a situation could benefit from your assistance.  I often have to stop my four-year-old in a store, bend down to her eye level, and say, “If you don’t a) stop crying, b) start behaving c) stop pooping your pants, d) all of the above, we’re going to have to leave.”  Although a wink and a nod from a fellow mom might be okay in that scenario, I’d probably get indignant if a female undergrad touched my arm and said, “Tough day, huh?  We’ve all been there.  Sometimes my kitty acts so crazy!”  Intention is everything in these instances, and condescension is sure to fuel the fire.  (Also, I’d say try to avoid proselytizing in these moments.  Save the religious pamphlets for the second date.)

It’s amazing how you can have great interactions with strangers, though, if you’re open to it.  Last night, my kid and I were ambling through the grocery store at 10 pm.  (Is there a bill yet in Congress to outlaw keeping your kids up past 9?)  Almost immediately after we got there, we came upon the lobster tank, and my daughter squealed with excitement.  One of the guys closing up the seafood section said, “I can take one out for you, if you want.”  He did, and she loved it.  Kids crave attention, and because she’d gotten some, she was an angel the rest of the trip.  Hillary said it takes a village to raise a child, and I think it’s true.  Pittsburgh native and children’s hero Fred Rogers wondered “what our real neighborhoods would be like if each one of us said just one kind word to another person,” thus the name of the movement.

Photo: xcode via Flickr