I Watched A Mother Hit Her Child Hard Enough To Be Assault. Why Didn’t I Intervene?
I’m no parent.
I’ve never experienced the sleepless nights, the public tantrums, the thousands of dirty nappies, the parent-teacher interviews, the hours spent in the car getting from the sporting oval to the next, the arguments at dinner over why they’re not eating their veggies and the everlasting pursuit for their happiness.
Honestly, my knowledge of parenting could fit on a single post-it note.
But, if there’s one thing I know, physically assaulting a child is never okay. You might think I have no ground to stand on as I’ve never been responsible for an adolescent, but that’s how I saw it when I watched a mother slap her small daughter across the face, twice, on London’s Underground.
I’m not one for corporal punishment. My parents never used it and I most certainly never will. Parent or not, there’s a clear difference between a disciplinary smack and plain physical assault. There’s no doubt in my mind this fell into the latter.
I saw it all unfold -- the lead up, the hit and the fall out. I saw it happen and felt tortuously ill while watching it, yet I did nothing about it. If it had been a grown man who assaulted a woman (or vice-versa), I’d have stepped in or at least called for help.
So why did I fail to act because it was mother and child?
The little girl looked no older than five. They were standing on the escalator just several steps below me on the way down to the platform. She and her brother, restlessly waiting, seemed to have a small tiff. It appeared minor and nothing out of the ordinary for two siblings around the same age.
Before I could comprehend what had happened, the mother drew her arm back and whacked her daughter across the face before going back for round two. Remarkably, in a city of eight million people and while travelling through Bond St Station, which sees almost 200,000 passengers a day through the turnstiles, I happened to be the only commuter who witnessed this. I couldn’t blame the ‘bystander effect’ for my lacklustre response.
I was triggered, my brain inundated with a million questions.
What could I do? Take a picture of the mother and take it to police? Would they bother following it up?
Do I speak up and call her out for what she did? If I do, will I only make it worse for the child when she gets home? Then I thought if she’s treating her child like this in public, how is she treating her at home? Perhaps I didn’t know the whole story.
The little girl didn’t react so maybe she didn’t hit her that hard? She did, she definitely did.
I wanted so badly to help, but the reason I remained at arm’s length was because (and I;’ve made this pretty clear at the top of the article) I’m not a parent. I felt I didn’t know enough about the subject and was concerned the mother would see straight through me.
I’ve thought about this moment a lot since -- what I’d do differently and at what point would I intervene.
If I didn’t believe the adult was the child’s parent, it would be an entirely different story. I’d have has the Met Police down there in a flash.
However, I’m 99 percent sure it was the girl’s mother and there’s a serious grey area when it comes to the legality of a parent smacking their own child in the UK.
Scotland and Wales recently revealed changes to the legal defence that protects parents who smack their child. In England, smacking is also illegal but has a legal defence (for parents and guardians only) of ‘reasonable punishment’ under a section in the children’s act.
Smacking a child in England is only considered an offence under another law which incorporates child cruelty, wounding or grievous bodily harm.
The 6,029 children who were on child protection registers (according to most recent statistics) might have something to say on what their guardians consider ‘reasonable punishment'.
The slap, though, wasn’t even the part that concerned me the most. The most troubling aspect of the ordeal was the child’s reaction. Shock. No doubt. But she carried on with a stiff upper lip like this was the norm.
It’s unsettling to think, if her mother was setting this kind of example now, what future was in store for this young girl. If she was (dare I say) to be abused by a future partner, friend, colleague -- or anyone for that matter -- would she be too afraid to speak up because her judgement of right and wrong may be forever tainted by her mother’s repeated backhands?
Again, I’m not a parent, but I have parents of my own and I’m going to take solace from my violence-free childhood.
If I ever see another child hit by a parental figure, I’ll have the guts to act.