Cart Thieves, Cauliflower, and an Ethical Dilemma
It’s been a weird day so far.
Like, someone-stole-my-shopping-cart-full-of-dog-bones-at-Target-while-I-was-looking-for-cauliflower kind of weird. They have these new, giant shopping carts with super-smooth steering, but good luck getting one of those things down an aisle. So I left it in the main aisle to avoid getting in anyone’s way, but apparently I should have laid camouflage netting over the top and planted ferns and strategically placed landmines because some bitch stole my cart!
So that’s the first weird thing.
And yes, I said I was looking for cauliflower at Target. Because it appears as though Target finally realized they were on to something when they started carrying groceries, but people still had to stop somewhere else if they wanted any produce, and now Target carries produce as well. I’m thrilled that I can do all my shopping in one place and have it not be Wal-Mart, but I’d still rather live somewhere I can walk to small specialty shops — markets, florists, hardware stores — without climbing back into the car between stops while wearing cute, heeled sandals and my feet don’t get tired.
Remember the beautiful streets of Malaga?
And where it’s not like 187-degrees F outside with 90% humidity.
Seriously… My clothes feel wet. I get the back sweats when I’m sitting in the car. Today, walking through the parking lot to Target, my knees started sweating. My knees! I’m shiny all the time. I had that thought in the car — that thought about feeling shiny — and when I switched the radio station (I’m a switcher — I never keep it on one station for long), the song Shiny Happy People by REM came on.
So that’s the second weird thing.
Another thing happened as I was walking into Target. I was actually coming from the Home Depot next door — trying to avoid a car trip across the parking lot between giant superstores — and I was somewhere in front of the outdoor gardening area at Home Depot when I heard someone just outside of Target yelling.
Not scared screaming, but angry screaming.
“This is the WORST f*cking time OF MY LIFE!”
“You are SO f*cking BAD!”
“Shut up! Just SHUT THE F*CK UP!”
Now. You probably have already guessed what I saw as I approached the Target store. But I want to preface the rest of the story by saying that up until now, I’ve consciously avoided writing about extremely controversial issues on this blog. I take the Buddha/Lennon/Switzerland approach of can’t we all just get along? and maybe I should just stay out of it.
But I’m curious.
Because when I saw what I saw, I’m ashamed of what I did. Or rather, didn’t do.
And I want to know what — if anything — you think should be done by a passerby in a situation like this.
Back in the Target parking lot, I zeroed in on a woman parked in one of the front-and-center handicapped parking places. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t handicapped, unless she had some incurable loss of control over her vocal chords, causing random, shouting, verbal diarrhea to pollute the air within a 200-yard radius of her body.
She was holding a small child, a little girl no more than 2 or 3 years old, and was walking around the car to put her in the back seat.
I did not see her commit any act of physical violence towards the girl, but the yelling? It was full of I-hate-yous and untamed frustration and probably spittle.
She was basically acting like a 2-year-old.
I thought it was terrible, but I continued on into the store.
There, another patron looked at me incredulously. “Can you believe that?” I asked.
“No!” he said.
“At least I didn’t see the woman hit her…”
“I did,” he said.
This was the moment.
That moment where you know you’re making a decision that could affect someone’s life.
For better or for worse.
And the bitch of it is that you just. don’t. know.
Had I approached the woman, she might have gotten angrier and taken it out on the child. Had I called the authorities, she would’ve been gone. Had I reported the information, maybe the child would be taken away from a woman who was just having a bad day and put into an abusive foster home. And by the time my mind finished processing this information — weighed the options and possible outcomes of action vs. inaction — she was gone.
Personally, I like it when I see a parent discipline his or her child in public. Even if it’s harsh. I don’t think children are disciplined nearly enough anymore, and I’m allowed to say that even though I don’t have kids, because I still have to see them and interact with them every time I leave my house. Also, I was spanked as a kid. I was not hit, and there’s a difference. The spanking stung, but it was on my cushy little butt and was intended as more of a humiliation factor than anything else. And I undoubtedly deserved it every time. I don’t feel as though I am any worse off today because of it.
Now, no matter how you feel about spanking, and trust me — whether spanking is right or wrong is NOT the discussion I want to open here — there is a line. There is a line between what my parents did to me and the full-on abuse of a child.
The discussion I want to open is whether or not it’s right to intervene — whether or not there’s an obligation to intervene — when someone’s behaving in a way you don’t deem appropriate.
The thing is, I don’t know if what that lady did was something she could get in trouble for. I didn’t see the hit. I only heard the rage. And I didn’t know if, by saying something, I would only make it worse for the child.
So I did nothing. Like Amir in The Kite Runner, I chose the evasive route.
I kept expecting John Quinones from the ABC “ethical dilemma” show, What Would You Do? to jump out from behind the shelves in the $1 section, screaming “Coward! Why didn’t you intervene?!”
And the simple answer is, I don’t know.
Had I calmly walked up to the woman, told her I understand what it’s like to lose control — to get frustrated — to want to lash out — and it’s okay, it happens to the best of us, but please think about what you’re doing to your child — would she have calmed down? Would she have taken a deep breath and come to her senses? Burst into tears and cried on my shoulder? Spit in my face and pushed me into oncoming traffic?
There’s no way to know.
And that, I suppose, is why I didn’t intervene.
But now, I think, I probably should have.
I’m curious to know what you would have done. Or at least, what you think you would have done, because there’s no real way to know until you’re in the moment. I’m especially curious about those of you outside of the U.S., because I have a feeling I know what the general response might be from citizens here.
And now I’m sweating again, but I’m pretty sure it’s not from the heat.
I’m not sure what I’d have done – it’s one of those “you had to be there” moments. But, as your mother, I will say that you were probably never spanked a half dozen times in your life. You weren’t even yelled at. You were such an easy kid, you knew when you did something wrong. And all I had to do was look at you in a disapproving way, and you’d burst into tears. It would be all I could do not not burst into laughter! But I had to stay stern!
Hmm… are you sure I wasn’t just super smart and cried because I knew it would get me out of it? ;)
I never thought of that! You little snot – you were smart!
Oh, I am all about passive aggressive, so I know that unless I am in full PMS mode, there’s no confrontation. If I’m in PMS mode, I lose friends, dump boyfriends, and turn down money. But.. normal, non-She-ra me, I’d make eye contact, and offer her camaraderie about the difficulties of child rearing, attempt to get her to unburden some of her emotional woes, and hopefully get her to laugh at a little at the situation. I’m a defuser, I guess. I hope she’d respond in a way that allowed me to shed a little light…
Yes! See, most likely she’s not an “abuser” but just had an ultra short fuse today… I wouldn’t want to ruin someone’s life over something like that. And maybe a little consolation… a little, “Hey, I get it, it’s tough”… was all she needed to come to herself. But if it’s not like that… if it is a regular thing… then I feel terrible for that little girl.
“Buddha/Lennon/Switzerland approach…” I love this and I will be stealing it for my future arguments or non arguments! As for the later question, I really do not know what I would do. If I saw someone beating a child in public I know I would step in. With just hearing the yelling I mostly would have followed a personal creed of mine “If it don’t pertain to mike, I don’t care”. Without knowing all details this would be a hard call to make.
Haha, now you KNOW I don’t take that approach in real-life confrontations. But on the blog? Yeah, I try to stay neutral.
You’re more than welcome to steal it. But if you start making money off the phrase somehow, we’ll have to have words. ;)
This is a toughy…. I am WAY non-confrontational by nature. So it would go against everything in my being to step in and say something. However, my mother worked for CPS for the first half of my life and ingrained in me from a very young age to have a 0-tolerance on any form of abuse. Now, had I been in your situation and just heard yelling I can’t say for certain that I would have done anything and can’t be sure what I would have done if it was more than just yelling BUT in the US it is law to report any suspected form of child abuse. All that to say… it’s still difficult. But according to my mother… the instances where children are taken away from parents is drastically small compared to the amount of reported child abuse. And even when a child is taken away, the parents are given dozens of chances to get their kids back. I know all of this is WAY controversial but the scary thought to me is… if someone would scream profanities at a child in the front of busy Target with a dozen people to see, what would she do in the privacy of her home?
Thank you for this comment! Those are really important and valid facts about which many people (myself included) probably weren’t aware. But that crazy question is, how do we know what’s abuse? Had I actually seen her hit the child, I’m pretty sure (though not positive) that instinct would’ve kicked in. I think you hit on why this is still plaguing me now — someone who can lose control THAT badly in public might be prone to doing far worse in private. That is why I feel like I should’ve at least said something to her.
Ya that’s the tough question. I took this from the Texas Attorney General’s website (every state might be different, I don’t know – I’m sure it differs in other countries):
“Child abuse is an act or omission that endangers or impairs a child’s physical, mental or emotional health and development. Child abuse may take the form of physical or emotional injury, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, physical neglect, medical neglect, or inadequate supervision . . . The law does not require the person reporting to be certain that a child is being abused or neglected before reporting, only to have reason for believing it . . . Anyone “having cause to believe that a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect” must report the case immediately to a law enforcement agency”
I think it’s one of those things that isn’t black and white. You just have decide in that situation and at that moment, but I like that it says ‘having cause to believe’ because it’s not your job to know for sure. You just report what you suspect and then some else will look into whether or not their is cause for further investigation. There are other things besides your report that they look into… like if there are were previous reports, criminal history, etc. It’s not all on your head to decide. Does that make sense?
All that to say, don’t beat yourself up about this specific incident. More than likely the poor mom was just overwhelmed and having a terrible day and responded poorly. If nothing else it’s a good thing to think about to know how you would respond if a situation, God-forbid, ever present itself again…. sorry I just babbled for so long :)
I happen to love babbles, so it’s all good. :) Thank you so much for sharing that information — it’s really good stuff for people to know, and maybe it will make people less afraid of taking action when it really is required.
I know exactly how you feel. What happens to me when I’m provoked to ‘intervene’ is that I get tongue tied. My mind goes completely blank. Then, days later, I spend my time thinking what could have happened had I done something. My thought on the subject is that one must assess the situation quickly, determine it’s severity, and take a chance. Keeping in mind if you are unsure about whether or not you might endanger yourself you should go for it, but if you know for a fact that getting in between two people who could clearly rip you a new arsehole, you should probably just go about your own business. Taking that extra step could change people for the rest of their lives. Not only will it make you feel good about yourself that you did something great but you are also paying forward to the person that needed you when no one else would reach out.
I completely agree though it is very difficult to decide whether or not to intervene. My gauge is to determine whether or not I could get myself into some serious trouble or worse serious physical anguish.
You are so very right. And usually — usually — I like to try to operate on a self-preservation basis as well. But at the same time, this was a defenseless kid. Even if I had gotten hurt, then at least it would have proven that she was a person prone to violence, and hopefully it would have gotten the child out of the situation. I guess I’ll never know…
This kind of stuff turns my stomach and as a teacher a Headstart program in north Philly (and frequent user of public transit) I see it All. The. Time. Earlier this year, I was at work getting ready to leave for the day and I could hear a kid screaming and crying in the hallway outside of the dance studio. Evidently he’d acted out in his art class earlier that day and his grandfather had been called in to pick up because he was being so disruptive. Personally, I think the child in question actually has Aspbergers (or is high-functioning autistic) so its hard for a 5 year old NOT to be disruptive when that’s the case. Either way, the grandfather was really laying into to him– not hitting him but just screaming at him– and I didn’t know what do about it (and my supervisor was out). Finally I said, “Christ, Kat! Your this kid’s teacher! If you’re not gonna step in here, who’s going to?” So I went out in the hall and pretended that I thought the grandfather might need help finding his way around the school. He asked me where the art room was because he wanted to make the kid apologize to the teacher and even though it was only a flight up and a few doors down, I walked all the way there with them. I figured at least nothing would happen on my watch.
I read an interesting article on this exact subject in Friends Journal (a Quaker magazine) a while back. Unfortunately it’s not available online or else I’d post the post the link but if I’m remembering correctly, it was written by a world renown speaker on conflict resolution, George Lakey. He (a self confessed old white guy) talked about overhearing a domestic dispute in his (predominantly black) neighborhood and trying to figure out what to do about it. He went out on his front porch and realized that the guy (who was in the process of beating his girlfriend) was definitely bigger and stronger than him so he prayed for some sort of guidance in how to diffuse the situation. Well, all the world renown speaker could come up with was to shout “I’m watching you!”
Evidently the man across the street paused for a minute but then when back to beating his girlfriend, so he took a step closer and yelled, “I’m still watching you!”
He did this a few more times and a minute later, an elderly African American woman came out from a house nearby, slowly made her way right onto the porch, took the girl and told the boyfriend, “We don’t treat our women this way.”
Moral of the story, sometimes you can be that elderly African American woman but sometimes you just have to be the old white guy who stands there yelling, “I’m watching you!” until the real help arrives.
(And on that note, I think this is the longest blog comment I have ever written!)
That is a really great story! In either case, the people were acting on what they knew was right. I guess in this case it was more of a gray area because who am I to tell her how to parent her kid (if she’s not “abusing” her)? But at the same time, there are actions I could have taken to get a more clear idea of abuse was going on or at least help calm her down. She seemed completely irate, and I’ll admit, it was a little scary to see a grown woman act like that in public. I guess I was just hoping there’s no way she could be like that all the time — like she had to have cracked, you know?
And don’t worry, I practically write a novel on your blog every time I post. ;)
It’s so easy to Monday-morning-quarterback yourself, but it seems like you did what you felt was right at the time. I mean, how can you possibly prepare yourself for a situation like that? I probably would’ve worried, too, that if the lady was abusive she would redirect her anger (re: being confronted by a stranger) towards the child. It IS possible that she was just having a really, really uncharacteristically bad day – like, maybe her husband just left her or something?
It’s so hard to know just what to do in the heat of a moment, and so easy AFTER the fact to think about what you SHOULD’VE done. I think your heart was in the right place, and as is typical of Katie, you were trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and consider what impact your actions might have on their feelings.
Generally, I think the best thing is to trust your instincts and act accordingly, and that’s what you did. If something were truly, obviously wrong or unfair, I’m certain you would step in regardless of the potential risk to yourself. There were lingering doubts in your mind about this one, which is probably why you didn’t act.
Haha, thanks for justifying my actions (or lack thereof), Stace. :) “Monday-morning-quarterback” <– I love that! And you're right… hindsight is 20/20.
Well, like most of the people above, I too am mostly a non confrontational person. I do have the tendency, however, to mutter (not so quietly) my feelings about situations. But in this case, it would depend on the situation. If I had my kids with me, I would have snapped a photo of the car/license plate and called the authorities just as a concerned citizen. But, I would have also read the face of the child. You can tell whether a child is terrified, or just upset. If I would have seen terror, the momma bear in me would have came out.
Now, if I was alone- I tend to be a little more confrontational. I probably would have approached her cautiously, but with a look of sympathy & asked her if there was any thing I could do to help her. I would have introduced myself, explained that I too have kids & understand that it is hard to complete errands when they are little & having a tough time. I would have offered to help her out- maybe even take her in for coffee (our Target has a Starbucks inside) just to try to figure out if this was an isolated incident or if she truly was an abusive parent. As a mother- THANKFULLY, I have never had that moment where my kids caused me to lose it in public. That being said- if I did have that moment, I would want someone to make me take a step back and realize what I am doing.
That was a long rambling answer, but I don’t think you did anything wrong. You may react differently the next time you are in that situation ( I hope you never have it happen again, but in this day and age…well, it’s sad, but it’s a given)
See, and I was definitely alone. But the idea to maybe try to placate her didn’t even occur to me until after she’d already gone. In the heat of the moment, I’d wanted to run over there, scream back at her, and ask her what she thought she was doing! And I guess I held back because a part of me knew that would only antagonize her. Also, I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t have been able to use the “I understand” bit — at least in that respect.
But I could have tried to sympathize. Next time, although hopefully there’s never a next time, I’ll know. :)
While I am typically terrible at confrontation – that usually only applies to people I know. My mouth has been known to get me into trouble, typically in the form of my husband telling me to shut up before someone tries to kick his ass. My confrontation skills are usually indirect, like I will say something out loud where I am sure the person can hear me… In this case if I had my kids I would probably say really loud, “Oh look, there is a lady abusing her child, someone should probably call CPS.” If I didn’t have my kids, I would probably knock on her window, tell her someone called CPS and she should get out of there, I know everyone loses their cool from time to time but get yourself together and don’t be a crazy. I think the “idea” of CPS would really put into perspective what others are seeing from her behavior. I don’t think that they need to be called per se, but the threat alone would hopefully make her think twice about when and how to discipline. And PS. public spanking here (costa rica) is illegal.
Personally, I don’t think placating her would have worked – it’s a nice thought, the ra-ra-mamahood of it all, but when you lose your cool with kids you aren’t in a good state – ESPECIALLY if someone sees you. You are embarrassed and the likelihood of someone rationalizing it, admitting fault and leaning on a stranger are about as good as that girl being nice to her kid once they get home. Chances are she would have started wide eyed at you and ran over your foot as she back out to get the hell out of there!
And if that last post makes any sense to you with all my typos then you rock – maybe commenting on your posts and drinking Toña’s don’t mix:)
Hahaha, are you drunk commenting again? ;)
I definitely see your point about placating — depending on the type of person she is (aka. the type who completely loses control and screams profanities at a 2-year-old in a Target parking lot), there’s a good chance she wouldn’t have been receptive to stranger intervention.
If it makes you feel any better, I likely would have done the same thing. It’s so difficult to know where that line is, and you only have a split second to make a decision in a situation like that. If I had seen the woman hit the child, it would have been an entirely different story, but when it’s screaming, it’s hard to tell if the woman was just having a really terrible day and it was a one-time thing, or if it’s a pattern.
But I’m also overly-cautious about reporting things, because my brother was almost taken away from my parents when he was a baby. He got sick with an extremely rare disease that caused all of his blood to rise to the surface of his skin (and through many of his pores). It looked quite a bit like bruising. Before he had been diagnosed, the daycare staff thought my parents were beating him and instead of asking questions, they reported it right to CPS and had my brother temporarily taken away. Thankfully CPS realized it wasn’t beating, but rather was this crazy disease and he’s ok now. But just seeing the look of anguish on my parents faces NOW while re-telling the story at the mere thought (and embarrassment) of having him taken away is enough for me to be extremely careful about what I report.
On the flipside, I have witnessed reckless endangermant of a child and I didn’t hesitate to phone the police. A car in front of me was racing another car on the same road, weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, with a child of about 5 or 6 in the front seat. No hesitation on that one.
So I think you just have to follow your gut. And in that situation, when you couldn’t be sure, I don’t think you should beat yourself up over not doing or saying anything…you could have made that woman’s life miserable over a one-time event of her losing her temper! And that’s some guilt I’m sure you wouldn’t want to live with.
See, I think that’s exactly why I didn’t do anything. I was worried about ruining someone’s life (or even a small part of it) over a minor freak-out. Okay, major freak-out. But still… But at the same time, if it came down to that and the well-being of a child, sometimes we just have to make the call. It’s scary to think CPS would just take them away without a thorough investigation first. But I guess they can’t take any chances, either… it feels like a lose-lose situation!