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Father learns from missed opportunity

May 24, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 23, 2018

A blond, wavy haired boy appeared. He was half the age and stature of my 8-year-old son, Adam, who stood next to me, contentedly licking a blue raspberry ice pop, his tongue turning bluer by the minute.

We were waiting for big sister, Zoe, and my wife, Lori, to exit the athletic complex where Zoe had just finished competing in a regional gymnastics meet. Zoe had done very well. We were all excited, and ready for the long drive home.

An ice cream truck was parked nearby, a handwritten sign on poster board read, FREE Ice Cream Treats – Donations for today’s gymnastics meet welcome!

The little boy’s cries pierced through the ice cream truck music as a tall, muscular man, who I assumed to be his father, repeatedly batted the boy’s head, forcefully directing him toward the door leading to the gymnastics meet, while a slightly older child quietly followed.

The boy, sobbing and resistant, was repeatedly subjected to harsh, mean words from his father. “Get over here!” “Stop it!” “Don’t even think about it, you’re not getting any ice cream. You don’t deserve it!” as they passed the truck. “Oh, look, the ice cream is free, too bad you can’t have any!” the man seethed, as he pushed the boy through the door.

Adam and I watched in silence. I contemplated saying something — injecting a non-threatening statement that would momentarily disrupt the man’s behavior.

Once in an airport terminal, I noticed a 20-something man verbally berating a woman, who was around his age, violently gesturing and escalating his tirade while she stood quietly and visibly shaken. I approached and with projected voice said, “Hey, do you have the time?” The man stopped, startled at my presence, fumbled for his phone and told me the time. “Thanks, I don’t want to miss my flight,” I said, and then I stood in close proximity to them, sipping my tea and waiting to board my flight, noticing the calming influence of my brief words and presence.

Another time, I merely moved closer to a man yelling at a child and stayed close and visible, as the father calmed, shifting from anger to concern.

But as I watched the man at the gymnastics meet being rough with the boy, I froze. The man appeared on the edge of rage and I feared that my words, however well-intentioned, might lead to greater harm. I also suspect I was extra cautious because Adam was at my side.

Regardless, I feel haunted by the missed opportunity to alleviate the suffering I witnessed. Granted, and all parents, myself very much included, are human, and our days and lives are fraught with moments where our best qualities are overshadowed by harmful expressions of our insecurities, limitations and best intentions gone awry.

And, to be fair, this may have been a rare moment for these people, and the circumstances preceding and following may have painted a very different picture than the one I observed, though I am skeptical.

Concerned about the impact of the incident on Adam, I engaged my son in conversation with questions such as, “What do you think the little boy was feeling?” “What do you think the father was feeling?” and “What do you think would be helpful.” I also made it clear that the man’s words and behavior toward the child were unacceptable.

But the regret that lingered for me is that despite my well-intentioned conversation with Adam, what he saw from me was inaction.

Vowing to learn from the situation, I turned to a friend and colleague, who also happens to be a father, and skilled clinical psychologist and educator. He reminded me that using language of empathy and avoiding language of shame and blame, is more effective — and safer — when attempting to connect with someone, especially someone who is emotional and could easily become enraged.

Then, over lunch, we brainstormed possible statements I could have used in that situation including: “I feel for you, parenting is a tough job,” “Kids can be tough to manage sometimes,” or “It’s hard to go inside for a gymnastics meet on such a warm, sunny day.” These statements aim for making positive, human connection, and, hopefully, offer a non-threatening disruption to the behavior, rather than inciting a defensive reaction with the many statements I wanted to make, such as: “Hey man, knock it off!” “Leave the kid alone!” or “Do I need to call the police?”

I find that acting with both intention and skill in a charged situation can be challenging, especially when the events are troubling but not extreme. Had the man’s behavior further escalated or become more physically abusive, I would likely have called the police.

Still, I’m optimistic that in the future I’ll feel more prepared to act in ways that might help defuse a difficult situation, and that I’ll continue trusting my instincts when a situation may be unsafe. Just as importantly, I’m ready to share with Adam my reflections, including how I struggled to respond in that situation, how I reached out to someone else for support and what I am prepared to do differently next time. When I do, I suspect I’ll learn something from Adam, too.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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