Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.

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