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Monday 12 October 2020

The Bystander Problem

We've all seen it a hundred times. 

A parent in the supermarket notices their child doing something they don't approve of -- usually, something completely harmless like looking at candy bars, or playing a game with their sibling -- and the parent reacts aggressively. They yell at the child, or they grab their arm and yank them, or they threaten them, or they otherwise demean them. Often it's clear that the child is hurt or embarrassed. 

And everyone else in the store just watches it happen. Some people nod approvingly. Some people (like myself) might get really uncomfortable or angry. But in all but the most extreme situations, we just sit by. We are bystanders. Because parents have a "right" to treat their children how they want, don't they? 

Tradition and custom in our society say that we should usually mind our own business and let parents treat their children however they wish. Most parents agree. Often, parents will get extremely defensive, and even aggressive, if you question their treatment of children. 

But I think that this societal norm of bystander silence is harmful to children. I think intervening is justified in many cases. In fact, I think we should do it more often. 

I think there is a moral obligation to step in when we see people mistreating other people. 

I just don't buy the idea that parents "own" or "control" their children (and there are strong legal arguments against parental rights). Therefore, I see children as people -- independent people deserving of respectful treatment. Even equal treatment. 

If I saw one person treating another person the way many parents treat their children, I would be horrified. I might even contact the authorities if one adult yelled at, viciously grabbed, and then threatened, another adult -- like I have seen many adults do to their children in public. 

I don't think that respect for human dignity should only be for adults. I believe we have a duty to extend this same respect and concern to children. 

There is no law saying that you can't step in and tell someone that what you think they are doing to their children is wrong. Even if the parent doesn't change, it might mean a lot to the young person to have someone stand up for them; to show them that the world doesn't necessarily have to be so arbitrary and cruel. Of course, many parents will attempt to justify this violence by calling it their own style of "parenting" or "discipline." 

But make no mistake -- this is abuse. And it needs to be called in. 

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