Care and Feeding

When Can I Confront a Stranger Over How They Treat a Child?

When to MYOB and when to step in.

Woman scolding her son.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Pro.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When is it appropriate to confront a stranger over their treatment of a child? When I was walking by a group on the sidewalk, I watched one of the little boys (my guess is he was 5 or 6 years old) approach one of the women in the group, perhaps his mother. She promptly smacked him on his upper arm and yelled at him not to interrupt her. At the time, I decided to mind my own business and keep walking. But the memory sticks with me, likely due to guilt. Would it have been appropriate to say something? If so, what?

—A Concerned Passerby

Dear ACP,

This is such a complicated and layered question, and such an important one. I wish there existed a clear set of guidelines, a flow chart or decision tree that we could all use, but this is really one of those things where you have to actually make a decision based on an emotionally intelligent reading of a situation. I would also argue that the rules aren’t the same for everyone, that not everyone should intervene in the same situations in the same way.

I’m going to assume your question is more about situations where you feel a person’s parenting is doing emotional harm. I think we can all agree that if you see anyone physically harming a child in a way that is likely to lead to serious injury, then you should intervene in any way that you possibly can. That said, this question makes me think about a phrase someone once told me about: “spiritual consent.” As in, what gives you “spiritual consent” to tell someone what you think about what they’re doing? It is an important concept, because when you act without consent, you’re likely to cause more harm than good.

One thing that helps you ask for and get spiritual consent to intervene is your motivation for intervening in the first place. Ask yourself what your goal is. If your goal is ego feeding (especially the ego-feeding proposition of making it known that you are morally superior), then it’s fairly likely that you’ll just end up being a dick about it. But if you are intervening to help, then your intervention has a greater chance of being useful to the family.

I would say that unless you’re willing to commit time to actually helping in the moment, you should probably keep your opinions to yourself. No one responds well to drive-by criticism, which feels disrespectful probably because it’s offered without consent. On the other hand, an offer like “Wow, it’s hard managing shopping and kids. Do you want me to help with those bags so you can pick her up?” is entirely different. Of course, someone might take offense to that too, but it’s much more likely to actually help because genuinely helping—rather than judging—is your primary goal.

But of course, there will be way more situations in which you are not able to intervene like this, and in the brief window in which you interact with this family, all you would be able to manage is to display your disapproval. If that’s the case, then I think it’s best to be quiet. People may want to believe that we live in a small village, but we don’t. We live in a shared, complicated world in which our baseline understandings often don’t match, and where trust is therefore not assumed. As such, you cannot go around imposing your vision of parenting on unknown adults. But you can always smile at a kid who is in distress to let them know that everything is going to be all right.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently, my daughter’s ninth-grade teacher contacted me about an assignment she turned in. My daughter wrote a dark, intensely emotional in-class essay about feeling like a stranger from her home culture. We adopted her as an infant from Ethiopia, and my husband and I naturally discussed all the repercussions that could come with interracial adoption. In addition, from an early age, we made no secret to our daughter that it was OK if she had complicated feelings surrounding her adoption, that she will definitely have different cultural experiences than our own, and that she was absolutely welcome to seek out whatever communities/friends/etc. she felt most comfortable and happy with. We enrolled her in adoption therapy when she was a bit older (after about six sessions, she declared it was a waste of time because she didn’t “have bad feelings” about her adoption). We stocked our home full of cookbooks (she’s turned up her nose at all Ethiopian cuisine and instead prefers mashed potatoes and chicken tenders). We even offered to return to calling her by her Ethiopian name (she picked an American nickname in early grade school that’s she’s insisted upon ever since). I’ve asked what she wants to do to connect with her birth home, but she’s always said that she’s an American and wants to be treated as such.

Her teacher contacted us with understandable concern; her in-class personal essay describes a narrative of being plucked from the place she called home, being smothered by American culture, and never fitting in with anyone around her. It’s really depressing to read!

Where did I screw up? I’ve always been proactive about connecting her with the place where she was born, but she’s never seemed to care. Should I re-enroll her in adoption therapy? I feel like I missed something huge, and I don’t know what happened. Please help.

—Lost Mother of a Lost Child

Dear LMoaLC,

You didn’t screw up. You said that you were OK if she had complicated feelings, so guess what, she has complicated feelings. I’m sure she loves you and feels safe and loved in your home. I’m sure she is, to a significant extent, culturally assimilated and comfortable in her world. I’m also sure that she has doubts, concerns, and feelings of discomfort about who she is and what her story is. I’m sure these things are changing for her every day.

My guess is she’s exploring them in her schoolwork rather than with you for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: a) she likes having a dramatic story; b) she’s afraid you would be hurt if she said these things directly to you—which, to be fair, you kind of are; c) she wants to impress a teacher or classmate; d) she has no idea why this stuff is coming out, it just is and she’s not about to stand in the way of inspiration; e) watching the world and the country unfold as it is every day is making her feel an increased solidarity with people of color and think more deeply about her story and how to be more honest about all of its layers.

Bringing a child of color into a white world and a white family is not easy. It’s never going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy for the child, and it’s not going to be easy for you. This is one of the ways in which that’s true. You have to sit with your own discomfort. You have to talk to friends, your private therapist, your loved ones about it—but not your daughter. You have to resist the temptation to make it about you and where you did or didn’t go wrong. You didn’t go wrong. She is having a human response to a situation. Let her have it, and be her mother. That means love her unconditionally, support her, feed her, listen to her. She is lucky to have you. That’s a fact, so don’t get obsessed with whether or not she sees it that way right now.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My Caucasian son who is 6 wants to dress up as Michael Jackson and paint his face. How do I explain it to him so he understands why he cannot?

—Man in the Mirror?

Dear MitM,

Christ, I can’t wait until this fucking holiday is over.