We heard none of the words but the red-faced, angry man targeted his little girl, who was perhaps nine or ten. He abused her in public.
We were simply sitting at the beach, no more than 30 feet from this poor child and bullying father or stepfather. The ocean and the high winds made it impossible to hear him but he leaned into her face, hers scared, his red-rage, veins pulsing, mouth terribly contorted.
She said nothing. Quiet as any passive victim, looking ready to cry. He used hand chops to make every point, towering over her like a rampaging drill sergeant vilifying a raw recruit. He looked like he might be calling her maggot! Cow! Insect!
One of us is a health care professional; one of us is a peace activist. We stared; he barely glanced at us with his focus of ferocity. No, he didn't hit her, but it was so wildly inappropriate that we feel the need to implore parents: do not do this for several reasons.
- That little girl has friends. Will she tend to bully them more? What is happening to her overall self-esteem?
- That little girl will grow up. Will she reproduce the pathetic, hurtful parenting on her children? After all, health care workers know that "hurt people hurt people."
- Her little brother tried to act like nothing was happening, all normal. What is happening to him? He clearly saw this as normal.
- Mom said nothing. Neither child could expect mercy from anyone. What desolation did they feel?
- Other families were near, were walking past, including toddlers and teens. Would they get night terrors, were they traumatized? Did they wonder if this was normal for some people?
- One man's inability to control himself was an act detrimental to the entire community. All of us will be scarred to some degree, knowingly or not. Obviously the little girl suffered the most acutely, the little brother next, perhaps the wife next, the other families next.
The sanctity and sovereignty of the family is the default setting and, without physical abuse, a legal intervention is not really likely--and any other intervention might be angrily rejected as "who are you to tell me how to parent my child?!"
That one of us is a health care professional leads to questions, such as, how likely is it that one or more of the people involved--and that is everyone in sight of this debacle--will show symptoms or presenting problems including self-abuse, other-abuse, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, stress and anger management problems, domestic discord, destructive relationship practices, or a whole host of other problems soon or even in the distant future.
As a health care provider she pondered, in retrospect, about the chances for a successful intervention had she simply told the oppressive man that she has practiced medicine, including pediatrics, for decades and that this approach is unhelpful and can lead to many health challenges, substance abuse, even suicide under some dire and repetitive circumstances.
One of us--the peace activist--struggled whether to get involved. When a very non-peaceful interaction is on full display, a peace person should know what to do. The feelings of inadequate response grow rather than recede, and potential interventions are too late. The sanctity and sovereignty of the family is the default setting and, without physical abuse, a legal intervention is not really likely--and any other intervention might be angrily rejected as "who are you to tell me how to parent my child?!"
But a calling-in approach may have been possible, for instance, "Hi friend, we can all see there is a real serious problem here. Can I help? I think all these little toddlers are probably really frightened." Or, "Hi, friend, I'm just an old grandpa, and I used to get real mad at my little ones, but I can tell you that it hurts everyone. Please tell me if I can help in any way."
Everyone. We were there for a break in the intense work of a primary provider, and someone who thrives by the ocean. We were taking just a one-night much-needed break at the coast. Instead, this unfit father has caused both of us--and who knows how many others--to have a frankly rotten time there and then to dwell on his poor behavior and to try to contemplate ways to intervene successfully (or not) in the future.
Our first lesson: never again. We will not watch a little child be bullied and wonder when to intervene. It will be right now. Like smoking, disproportionate enraged response has second-hand, knock-on effects, rippling outward in a negative fashion, harming everyone along its path.
Our second lesson: teach parents that hyper-aggression toward children will also likely produce negative health outcomes for themselves, including possible depression and/or memory loss (after all, what is more depressing and worthy of forgetting than the knowledge that you've harmed your own child?) heart disease, anxiety and other symptoms we see in the victims.
I hope none of allows this terrorizing conduct toward children to stand. And I hope such parents understand no one believes it is right—nor is it aright--but rather is harmful in the short and long term to all.
Leslie Gregory and Tom H. Hastings
A certified Physician Assistant (PA-C), navy veteran, and mother of two, Leslie Gregory is a longtime Portlander and social justice activist focused on healing those affected by everyday racism. She believes in the importance of taking a dynamic approach to teaching racial justice through health practices. Leslie is an experienced antiracist facilitator and conflict facilitation mediator. She writes and conducts research on the health impacts of racism for ALL Americans with a clinical and public health lens, accessing the humanistic and preventive approach. She encourages people to use empathy, introspection and intention around interpersonal and sociopolitical engagement.
Tom Hastings is co-coordinator of the undergraduate program in Conflict Resolution at Portland State University. He is a former member of the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA), former co-chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is on the boards of both the IPRA Foundation and the Oregon Peace Institute, as well as the Academic Advisory Council of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. He is Founding Director of PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute, and has written several books and many articles about nonviolence and other peace and conflict topics. He is a former Plowshares resister, a nonviolence trainer, a founding member of two Catholic Worker communities, and currently lives in Whitefeather Peace House.