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Question 27: Should one intervene when parents mistreat their children?

In public places, especially in supermarkets and other self-service stores, I often see parents mistreating their children, either verbally or physically or, sometimes, both. For example, not long ago I saw a little girl, three or four, being slapped by her angry father; he was holding her firmly by the shoulder with one hand and slapping her with the other, at the same time harshly scolding her. The child, terrified and in pain, was wailing for her mother. I felt I should intervene, but, not knowing what to do, simply stood there watching. The man scooped the child up and headed for the exit, all the while continuing to scold her. I followed them out and saw the man toss the child into the back seat of his car, pick up his wife, by now standing in front of the store, and drive off.

What should you do in a situation like that? Should you intervene, and, if so, how? The parent is likely to take anything you say or do as meddling. That may even provoke the parent into worse abuse and probably will draw his or her wrath upon oneself. But it seems wrong to stand by and do nothing, for, if you were in the child’s place, you would want somebody to come to the rescue.

I suppose just about everyone sometimes encounters such situations, but nobody I have talked with knows what to do. It seems to me that the question really is difficult and worth considering.


This question concerns the application of norms regarding admonishing apparent sinners. Intervention is not warranted unless one is confident the adult’s behavior is objectively morally wrong. When intervention is warranted, one should try to identify cases in which public authorities probably would intervene. If an adult’s treatment of a child certainly is morally unacceptable, yet not such that the authorities would be likely to intervene, one should communicate with the adult. In such communication, anger and self-righteousness must be avoided; one’s sole purpose should be to help the parent, the child, and their relationship. If possible, one should do or say something likely to induce the adult not only to moderate his or her present behavior but to reflect on it afterward and, perhaps, amend it.

The reply could be along the following lines:

The parent-child relationship is both important and delicate, and a family is a bit like a circus troupe doing a high-wire act together. Even if there are real inadequacies on the part of one or both parents, outsiders’ well-intentioned efforts to help matters risk weakening the relationship and upsetting the family with little real benefit to the children. Therefore, neither public authorities nor concerned individuals outside the family should intervene unless the need is clear. Moreover, if an intervention is essential, every effort should be made to minimize harmful effects on the family, and generally interventions should be limited in scope and directed toward encouraging and helping parents to fulfill their responsibilities.

In some cases, mistreatment of a child is so severe—for example, likely to break bones or do some other serious injury—that reasonable people would agree that anyone who can stop the violence should do so, even using force if necessary. Apart from such cases, though, it would be fruitless to intervene physically to stop mistreatment, since physical force will not alter bad parental attitudes and habits. Moreover, using force might violate the law and render a person intervening vulnerable to a civil lawsuit. In what follows, then, I deal only with less severe cases and assume physical intervention is excluded.

Less extreme instances of real or apparent parental mistreatment of children vary greatly in their seriousness. Cases you encounter in the future will not be exactly like the one you describe, but only more or less similar. Thus, your question really bears on a spectrum of cases, not all of which call for the same kind of response. First are instances so severe that the public authorities probably would intervene if they were aware of what was happening. Second are instances in which parental behavior certainly is unreasonable and unfair to a child, yet not so severe that the public authorities would take action. Third are instances in which you or other observers find a parent’s behavior repugnant and think it inappropriate, but it may not be unreasonable and unfair.

Cases of the third sort occur due to two factors, either or both of which can be at work in any given instance. First, sometimes a child misbehaves, a parent observes the misbehavior and punishes it, the child acts as if he or she were suffering far more than is really the case, and bystanders unaware of what prompted the parent’s action feel sorry for the frustrated and suffering child. Second, the treatment of children varies considerably in different cultures, including those of different groups living in the same community—some are more permissive, others stricter; some virtually exclude physical discipline, others accept it within limits. So, parental behavior that an observer thinks is inappropriate or even violent may simply be culturally different, without being wrong by objective standards. Consequently, when you notice an instance of what seems like parental mistreatment, give the parent the benefit of any doubt and never intervene unless you are confident that the observed behavior is morally unacceptable.

How can one recognize and deal with cases of the first sort—those in which the public authorities probably would intervene? Since laws and their enforcement vary in different jurisdictions, you will need—unless certain of the policy in the place where you are—to get in touch with the authorities who handle reports of children’s mistreatment. They will be able to clarify what sorts of behavior should be called to their attention and offer suggestions about how to proceed. Once you have this information, you will sometimes be able to summon the authorities to deal at once with an ongoing case of mistreatment. If not, you may recognize the abusive parent or be able to learn his or her identity—for instance, from a check or credit card slip if a cashier or store manager is cooperative. In the case you describe, you might have been able to note the automobile license number, which probably would have sufficed for the authorities to identify the misbehaving parent. I wonder, however, whether the authorities in many places would have seen fit to intervene in that case.94

Thus, there remain cases of the second sort, about which, no doubt, you are mainly concerned. Parental behavior toward a child certainly is unreasonable and unfair, and may even be violent, yet is not so severe that the public authorities would take action. Since intervention by physical force is excluded, you have only two options: either do nothing or try to communicate in some way with the parent. As you say, an abusive parent is likely to regard any outsider’s intervention as meddling. While that could provoke the parent into worse mistreatment, I do not think that is likely. Still, you are probably correct in expecting the abusing parent to become angry with you if you question his or her behavior. But that probably will not lead to any serious harm, and, unlike people who keep their distance from crime victims crying out for help, you should be prepared to accept some risk and other burdens to respond to children’s need. Fear of the parent should not keep you from doing what you otherwise would judge appropriate.

Nobody should challenge another’s wrongful behavior, however, without first examining his or her own motives. Upright people often feel indignant at seeing the weak unjustly treated, but merely venting one’s feelings is likely to do more harm than good, and self-righteousness must be avoided. Your sole purpose should be to help the parent, the child, and their relationship with each other by encouraging the parent to be a better parent. Thus, the point of intervening should be to move the parent to think about his or her wrongful behavior, see its wrongness, and wish to change it for the better.

But can you communicate in a way likely to help? Perhaps. Much depends on your personality, sensitivity to the different circumstances of each case, quick-wittedness, and various personal attributes (such as your age, sex, and appearance) that could affect the other party’s receptivity. No single remark or gesture will be appropriate for every case. Sometimes, simply staring at abusing parents makes them self-conscious, so that they moderate their behavior, and talking about some unrelated matter can distract an angry person. Such tactics, however, are not likely to yield lasting benefits; that requires addressing the underlying attitude. Probably best would be to begin with some very brief remark—for example, one might try to distract the parent and invite conversation by a nonthreatening remark: “It looks as though she (he) is giving you a hard time!” Or one might look intently at the parent until he or she notices, then say something in a calm and gentle tone that might serve as a seed of later reflection.: “Sometimes children get to you, don’t they? Still, I’m sure you want your little girl (boy) to love you.” A remark of that sort, while appealing immediately to feeling, points to one reason why parents should not mistreat their children: the good of the parent-child relationship. Or, again, one may not be able to do better than to say with a smile: “She (he) will be a teenager before you know it.”

Even such attempts to provoke thought are likely to elicit a defensive reaction: “Mind your own business!” Once again, there may be no point in replying. Or, perhaps, a soft answer might help: “Please forgive me. I would rather mind my own business, but I cannot help putting myself in your little girl’s (boy’s) place.”

Public mistreatment of children very likely is only the tip of the iceberg—a small portion of the widespread violent treatment, psychological cruelty, verbal abuse, and gross neglect of children, most of it going on in private. Since you are sensitive to the plight of children suffering mistreatment and wish to do something to help them, you should consider the larger phenomenon and ask yourself whether you have any gifts or resources that you could use to combat this evil. For example, perhaps you might serve as a volunteer with some private or public agency that deals with some of the more serious cases.

You also might take a radical approach to the mistreatment of children by doing whatever you can to support the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life and the moral norms regarding its transmission, and by taking an active part in the prolife movement. Proponents of contraception and abortion long have argued that making them available to everybody would prevent or eliminate unwanted children, so that every child would be wanted and none mistreated. With the wider availability of contraception and abortion, however, mistreatment of children has shown no signs of abating and even seems to have increased.95

While there no doubt are other contributing factors, rejection of traditional Christian values surely is part of the explanation. When children were regarded as a normal part of marriage and family life, a child was likely to be accepted as a gift; now that children often are counted among the various things a couple (or even an individual) might or might not want, a child is likely to be rated, like other possessions, as more or less satisfactory. Parents who take care to have only “wanted children” often soon find themselves inescapably burdened with unsatisfactory children, who also frustrate some of their other desires.

If society rationalized killing children already born as it rationalizes abortion, these previously wanted but now unwanted infants and small children would perhaps be killed. But why should people who can imagine that killing their children would be acceptable scruple at mistreating them? Because everyone should be concerned, as you are, about the mistreatment of children, all of us should do everything we can to support the Church’s teaching about the sanctity of human life and its transmission.

94. When the mistreatment of a child is not observed but alleged by the child or a third party, one should be cautious about notifying the authorities. Reports of mistreatment sometimes are false, and being investigated by public authorities can gravely disrupt a family and always is a traumatic experience.

95. Andrea J. Sedlak and Diane D. Broadhurst, Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1996), 3, report that abuse and neglect resulted in demonstrable harm to an estimated 1,553,800 children in the U.S. in 1993, an increase of 67% from the 931,000 children harmed by abuse and neglect in 1986 and of 149% from the 625,100 children harmed by abuse and neglect in 1980.