What’s the Matter Here?

September 10, 2009

The title of this blog is the name of a song that was a hit for the band 10,000 Maniacs on their “In My Tribe” album from 1990. It’s a song about child abuse, and how people turn away from it, and make excuses like “he’s their kid,” and “it’s not my business.” I have always believed that if I saw a child being harmed in any way, I’d step in and stop it. Apparently I was wrong.

I stopped at my bank at a small and old strip mall near my home, then walked down to the grocery store. This isn’t a supermarket, mind you; it’s a small store that’s been there since I was a child, and I used to go there with my mother. Most of the clerks and carry-out “boys” (many are retired men) know most of the shoppers, and have for years. As I was checking out, a mother and her young son, maybe four or five years old, were in the next lane. The boy wasn’t acting up; he was playing a little game with one of the younger carry-outs, where he’d take a few steps away from his mother, quietly, and the carry-out would pretend he was going to “get” him, and then the child would run back to his mother and giggle.

They left the store ahead of me, and he was lagging a little, like most children that age do. As we neared the end of the strip mall, where I was parked in front of the bank, we passed a dry-cleaners. Their front door was open, as it often is on warm days. The boy stopped to look in. He was fascinated. He bent over a little and just stared, wide-eyed. His mother was opening the car door and called to him, and I walked past him and said, “You’d better go to your mom now, they might clean you if you go in there!” He grinned at me and turned to his mother.

Not fast enough for her. She yelled, and I quote, “Get your butt over here, now!” in a very angry voice, and as she did she trotted up to her child and grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him towards her. I was unlocking my car at that point, and turned to see. She carried him to the car, swatting him on his bottom at least three times, then violently shoved him into the back seat. I heard another smack — but this one was skin on skin, so not on his bottom. I took a step towards them.

She said, loudly and in an exceptionally angry tone, “You are totally on a time-out, just you wait until we get home!” I took another step towards them, thinking the mother was the one who needed the time-out, and she looked up and glared at me. I stopped in my tracks. If I said or did anything, would it just make it worse for this little boy? If I did nothing, would he get a real beating when he got home? The morning had been chilly, so he was in long pants and long sleeves, and I hadn’t seen bruises, but still… She got in her car, slammed her door, revved the engine and took off before I even thought to try to write her license plate number down.

The little boy’s face, his soft blond hair and wide blue eyes and the little grin he gave me, haunted me all the way home, and long after. Maybe I didn’t have a right to intervene, but I think I had an obligation. I failed this child. At the very least, I should have written down that license number and called the police, so that a social worker could check out the situation. Maybe she’d had a bad day; maybe he’d been impossible to deal with earlier in the day, a “wild thing” like Max in the book, and she was at the end of her rope. Or maybe she was always that way. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to make her angrier, with only that child for her to take her anger out on — but I should have done something.

I know — all my “shoulds” can wear me down and take my focus away from now, and what is. I learned one lesson, though. I’ll keep my notepad easily accessible, and if I see something like that again, if I don’t feel I can intervene, I’ll write down the license number, and call someone who does have the right to intervene. No child deserves to be treated like that, and perhaps the mother needs help just as much as her son.

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4 Responses to “What’s the Matter Here?”

  1. Lori,
    What an awful experience and so hard to shake. I read somewhere that if one engages the mother in pleasantries such as, “My isn’t it hot today? Or what brand of dog food do you buy, if you happen to be in the dog food isle. Or in your case, maybe, “With wash and wear I wonder how cleaning businesses can make it in this economy.” Maybe even, “Your little fellow sure looks like my sister’s grandson. He’s going to be three in August. How old is your boy?” That might defuse the situation for the moment, but if she’s a child beater, a license plate check is a good idea. Eunice Boeve

  2. Lori Orser said

    It all happened so fast; she was gone by the time I was thinking of something to say. I didn’t feel that my saying anything would have helped, though — she looked furious.

  3. RobD said

    I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case, great info…I will add a backlink and bookmark your site. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  4. There’s good info here. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog. Keep up the good work mate!

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