My back was to the middle-aged couple and three children sitting across the room from our table at Sunny’s Café. I didn’t see what happened. I don’t even remember what we had been talking about just prior. One moment I was in the middle of saying something, then I heard scuffling. Micah and Sterling across from me had a concerned expression and seemed to be glancing over my shoulder. Then came the angry voice of a man simultaneous with the desperate cry of a boy.
“Don’t hurt me!” said the boy.
And I couldn’t make out all of what the man said except that he was not quiet, and he was not brief, and he sounded as though he was barely containing his contempt. The main thing he said over and over to the boy was “You’re a liar!”
I turned around to see an overweight, unkempt, graying man looming over a boy of perhaps 9 or 10 and berating him at length. The boy was sobbing openly as the man barked at him repeatedly to shut up and stop his crying.
The woman at the table – presumably the man’s wife – sat quietly across from him looking down at her food. Two younger children – a boy and a girl – sat beside her.
The situation seemed completely out of hand. Something was terribly wrong. This was not just a father disciplining his son for misbehaving. This was a grown man verbally destroying a child in public at length with seemingly no concern whatsoever for appropriate boundaries, decorum, or the other people in the restaurant. And if he was so unhinged in public, what was he like in private?
Someone needed to intervene, but who? And how? What is the proper response in a situation like that?
To Confront Or Not
After perhaps a minute of this going on, I excused myself. This family sat between our table and the bathroom, so I headed that way. As I passed, I glared down at the man who was still in the crying boy’s face, but he didn’t look up.
I paced the bathroom floor trying to decide what to do. Should I ask the man to step outside? Should I say something in front of everyone? Something about those plans seemed inadequate and untimely.
Closing my eyes, I said a quick prayer asking God to intervene in the situation and to give me wisdom and courage, then I exited the bathroom. As I walked back to my table, the man was still at it. Yet this time he looked up at me as I glared down at him. He looked somewhat nervous suddenly. I gave him the face I do when one of my children is misbehaving in public – the ‘I am watching you and do not approve, and you’d better knock it off or else’ face.
And that’s just it, right? There is a time and place for correcting a child in public. Children misbehave, sometimes in very embarrassing and frustrating ways. I get it. As a father of six young children from 2-10, I have lots of experience with that. Believe me.
But getting frustrated at a child’s misbehavior doesn’t justify verbally taking them apart at length in front of others, nor raging at them as they sob openly. The proper course, however you’re feeling, is to correct them quietly but firmly. And if they still won’t listen, it’s appropriate to take them to the bathroom or back to the vehicle.
What this man was doing was not discipline. He was the one out of control and needing discipline.
That Time Someone Called The Cops On Me
When I was about 17 or 18-years old, I found myself in a similar situation. I was driving a friend home to pick something up one night. While she was going in, two other friends and my brother and I stood out in her driveway chatting.
I couldn’t tell you what we were talking about. The four of us fell silent mid-sentence to the sound of turmoil across the street. A man was yelling. Things were being thrown. Children were crying. Us four stood there in the dark looking across the street, unsure what to do.
After a minute, I crossed the street and rang the doorbell. The woman of the house answered.
“Can I help you?”
I told her we had just been passing through. I heard the commotion and just wanted to make sure everyone was alright.
“I’m sorry. Who are you?”
The man came to the door, clearly agitated. My asking if everyone was alright only agitated him more. The woman went from being confused to following his lead. Within a moment she was calling the police – not on the domestic disturbance I had responded to, but because I was supposedly trespassing by ringing their doorbell.
But why should I have worried? I wasn’t doing anything wrong. ‘Let the police come,’ I thought.
When the officers arrived, I explained myself and what I had been concerned about.
“How old are you?” The officer asked. When I told her, she turned to my little brother beside me and repeated the question. He said he was 14 or 15. “It’s past curfew. You need to go home.”
And so we did.
How Would You Respond?
I’ve encountered two situations about a dozen years apart where I felt like intervention was necessary. In which did I do the right thing? And what’s the proper response in a situation like this anyway?
Back when I was a teenager, I strolled across the street and rang someone’s doorbell after-dark to confront what sounded like domestic violence. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t; either way, the cops were called, and law enforcement told me to go home. They clearly thought I wasn’t being helpful.
Fast-forward. I’m in a restaurant as a family is sitting at the table across the room from us. The man is clearly out of line, but what can I say or do without making things worse? Am I going to take him outside and possibly get into an argument about what he’s doing? If I do, with the way this guy seems and the way I felt, I could easily see that turning into a physical altercation. And either way, how does that wind up helping the boy or the other two children at that table?
Or if I had called the police, what could I have told them had happened? And what law had the man broken? Yes, he was being an absolute jerk. But I didn’t see him lay a finger on the boy. And short of that, what would any law enforcement officer say to me except “Go home”?
Did I do the right thing this second time around in leaving the restaurant without confronting the man? While having locked eyes with the guy a couple of times to quietly express my disapproval may have been better than nothing, was there something more I could have and should have done?
What I Wish I Had Said
To the guy I saw berating a young boy in open view of everyone at Sunny’s Café, here’s what I wish I had said to you.
Being bigger and stronger for now doesn’t make you right. Being the adult doesn’t mean all actions and statements by you are justified so long as the child did something to provoke you. You have a responsibility to correct misbehavior, yes. But part of the way we as parents correct misbehavior in our children is by setting a godly, respectable, appropriate example.
If that child was acting up in the Café last Saturday, you had a responsibility to correct him. Yet the larger problem apparent to everyone in the room that morning was not his behavior. We didn’t even see or hear what he did. The larger problem was your behavior. You were out of control.
Don’t ever call a child a liar. Yes, sometimes children say things that are untrue. But when my children lie, I would never dream of calling them liars because to do so would be my declaring that is their identity. To call my sons liars would be to define them by their mistake and sin.
I sometimes tell my sons they are not telling the truth. That’s fair and right. I may even say they have lied to me and I am disappointed when I know it for a fact. But the goal is always to call them to be truthful because that is what I want to define them. The goal is repentance.
What’s more, I would never dream of berating my sons in public as they sobbed for all to see. What’s wrong with you that you would think that was okay? By handling even a legitimate wrong that way, you are destroying that boy.
First Do No Harm
Consider the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians for thousands of years. The pre-eminent obligation is ‘primum non nocere’ – Latin for “first do no harm.” This principle can apply to much more than medicine.
Take, for instance, disciplining children. Stopping their bad behavior and getting them to do what we want are not all that matter. If we pursue those ends without any other concerns, we will justify doing monstrous things. We will wind up destroying our children.
The goal must be holistic.
According to Merriam-Webster, something which is holistic is “relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts.”
That may sound complicated. It isn’t. Your child is a person in whom the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. You must keep the big picture in mind when you’re raising your child, especially when instructing or correcting them.
The goal isn’t just to have children who don’t annoy you or make you look good in public. If we truly love our children as God loves us and calls us to love others, the goal must be to raise our children into healthy, fully-functioning adults.
As Proverbs 22:6 says,
“Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
That includes external actions, yes. But more important than outward compliance is the internal world. Yet if you neglect or actively destroy a child’s internal world to force outward compliance in the short-term, you are setting them up for long-term anguish and difficulty. In correcting our children’s bad behavior, it’s crucial that we not cure the disease by killing the patient.