With a scant forty-five minutes to get in some exercise and much-needed oxygen to my brain, I jogged down the main road near my home, toward an area that has been going through gentrification. Music played loudly in my earbuds and my adrenaline was pumping. I ran over wide cracks in the uneven sidewalk, past brand-new modern homes and renovated old Victorians abutting older duplexes and rentals. I jog through these streets because I enjoy the neighborhood’s diversity. As I jogged past an apartment complex, I saw in my peripheral vision a mom repeatedly hitting her child’s outstretched hands with a white stick that looked like a pipe. I saw anger and crying and trembling.
Somehow I never considered that this was none of my business; according to Jewish law, one is not even allowed to watch an animal suffer, much less a human being – and facing me was a helpless child! Of course this was my business!
As I moved toward them, I was afraid that the mom might turn her anger against me; this could get ugly. How could I see to the care of the child without angering the mother and escalating the situation? I quickly remembered a Facebook post about a similar situation to which someone had responded with compassion and non-judgment: “Offer the mother a hand. She is obviously having a hard day.” If I were to offer this kind of intervention, I believed, I would be safe and might be able to stop the immediate situation. It was surely worth a try.
With this intention I pulled out my earbuds and yelled, “Hey there, is everything ok?” The young mother stopped in her tracks and yelled at me: I had no business telling her what to do, she said. She is right, a part of me thought. But I responded as a mother, saying that I wasn’t trying to tell her what to do but as the mother of eight children, I understood how hard parenting gets and was there anything I could do for her.
Her response shifted, from indignation over my intervention to a barrage of complaints about her son, how badly he has been doing at school, how the teachers are fed up and she is fed up. She doesn’t usually hit him, she said, but it’s gotten so hard. The boy’s father was dead and she was raising him alone. “I don’t know what else to do,” she said. She seemed truly at her wit’s end. While our situations were very different, I could empathize with the helplessness, the frustration and even the lack of control that could lead to wanting to strike out physically at someone.
Many of us who grew up in the 70’s might remember that physical punishment was a part of the parenting toolkit; sometimes it was a mild whack across the bottom, and sometimes, it was worse. Back then, society accepted it. Today, we have empirical data to prove that hitting children is more detrimental than helpful.
I told her that it is good that she doesn’t usually hit him, and that physical punishment probably won’t change his behaviors anyway. It seemed like she was really interested in what I had to say – her eyes seemed calmer, and she looked more vulnerable than dangerous or angry. I explained to her that by her son misbehaving on the outside, he is showing her that he is hurting on the inside and needs her to be close and loving. When a child is hurting and acting out, discipline and harshness should be replaced with compassion and understanding.
I wanted to give her encouragement and help her see the pain that I believed he was carrying: I told her that the fact that her son is crying shows that he is compassionate and wants to do good.
I asked her what her son’s name is and then I called his name. He had been standing knees bent, back straight with his hands out trembling, silently crying, afraid that the abuse would continue.
I now walked up to their front gate and shook their hands, introducing myself, and asked him some questions about school. He told me he wants to be a doctor, I told him that there are a lot of rules to follow to become a doctor and some serious learning too, and that he should be good to his momma because she is doing everything alone.
I knew that my influence on this family would probably be limited to this moment. But having made a human connection, I felt a sense of responsibility to them both so I decided to leave them with something that has been of utmost importance in my own experience as a mom: information. I told her that the library around the corner has many parenting books, and promised to drop off my favorite parenting book for her. About a week later, I left it outside near her mailbox. I hope she got it and read it. I never saw or heard from her again.
This incident has stayed in my mind, not just for the pain of the mother and child, but having become aware that although there is so much good parenting information out there, it may not be available to or shared with those who might need it most.
I am surrounded by affluent and middle class moms who are trying everyday to do what is best for their children. When I don’t measure up, I am reprimanded: “you know you should be buying organic eggs for your children,” says the stranger standing next to my cart overflowing with groceries and children. And I pause before posting a car seat picture of my twin girls online – that invariably gets me comments about the placement of my children’s seat belt, or criticism about one of the points of the six point harness that are misaligned or unbuckled. There is even “You feed your child cold cereal for breakfast? Don’t you know that is the most important meal of the day?”
Upon reflection I have concluded that it is good when we look out for each other. Decades ago, we would have lived in smaller towns, closer to our nuclear families; we would have learned from the wisdom of our parents and others in our community. In today’s reality, we can access a wealth of information about parenting and living well, online and from books, but often we are missing the human connection.
I know from personal experience that it doesn’t always feel good to be on the receiving end of criticism, so I understand why most people hesitate to be the person who’s criticizing, because they don’t want to be confrontational. But I am usually grateful when someone points out something that could endanger my children, or that I am exhibiting behavior that others may perceive as negligent, even if it does sting. I appreciate the input of my larger village of moms who can help me learn more and grow more; and I hope they’ll appreciate my input in return. Although our circumstances vary, we are all doing the best we can to raise happy and healthy children.
Dena Schusterman is the mother of eight children including four-year-old twins, and a Chabad Rebbetzin at Chabad Intown, Atlanta, GA. She is the Director of the Intown Jewish Preschool, wife to her husband, and spends time writing, interacting with, teaching, and mentoring the people in her community.