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Yelling at kids in public: Is it discipline or abuse?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  July 1, 2010 01:39 PM

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What would you do if you saw an adult screaming at a child in a public place? Talk to the adult? Call the police? Walk away?

An In the Parenthood reader wrote to me about an incident she witnessed recently and wondered what, if anything, she could have done to help.

There are some large playing fields near our house that are part of a public school complex. They are often used on weekends by soccer clubs and various leagues, both for children and adults, and that is a wonderful thing. On a recent Saturday morning, though, my friend and I were walking near one of the fields and heard some very loud yelling and screaming. I first thought that perhaps an adult male softball team had had some kind of dust-up and that things would get settled quickly. As we walked close to the field, we could see that it was a man and three children, ages maybe 6 to 12, and he was yelling at them as they helped gather up the bases and balls and stuff from all over the field.

There's more:

They were completely cowed by him and the defeat in their little shoulders as they picked up the gear was heartbreaking. Collecting the gear took some time to do and he continued to scream and yell at the top of his lungs the whole time. This went on non-stop for about 10 minutes; he barely stopped to breathe. They all got in the car and I could still hear him howling at them as they drove away. I think these were his children, not some random team members, but I donít know... He did not strike or manhandle any of the three.

According to a 2009 study, for many parents shouting has become the new spanking. "If someone yelled at you at work, youíd find that pretty jarring. We donít apply that standard to children,Ē sociologist Murray A. Straus, one of the study's lead authors, told The New York Times. Since time-outs and counting to three aren't necessarily effective, and spanking in public is definitely frowned upon, a frustrated parent may berate their kids in an attempt to re-establish their authority -- and if you step in, the anger may be re-directed at you for undermining it. You may be better off calling the police and asking them to bear witness -- and intervene if necessary.

The reader and her friend decided to walk across the field in plain view of the man and the children, to let them know that they were being observed, but the yelling didn't stop. "I wanted to call the police but wasnít sure if that would have been the right thing to do. Maybe that would make it even worse on the kids later," she wrote. "I was afraid to ask him to stop yelling. Most people would have stopped once they knew there was an audience and that made me think he was too out-of-control to talk to rationally."

It's a tough call. Where is the line between discipline and abuse? And what would you have done in the same situation?

Given the way the kids seemed "cowed" and defeated, I'd probably bear witness and look around for a police officer so I could ask him or her to do the same. But in general, I'm wondering: When we see a woman screaming at her kids in public, does it seem as frightening or abusive? Men who try to help a crying child are often assumed to be causing the problem rather than trying to solve it; are we more likely to consider discipline to be abuse if the parent is male rather than female?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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33 comments so far...
  1. I would have joined in on picking up the stuff, hoping that would be enough to "shame" him into curbing his bark. No guarantee he wouldn't yell at me too, but I'd be willing to take the chance.
    Once done I might say something like "What beautiful children! You are very blessed, don't you agree?"

    Unless the children are being hit, or the parent/caretaker is hurling profanities at them, or there is evidence that the parent/caretaker is drunk or high, there is nothing the cops can (or will) do.

    Posted by Joan Dark July 1, 10 04:10 PM
  1. I don't understand the issue. When I was a child, my parents and all of my friends parents yelled at us if we misbehaved. It sure beat the other option, if you know what I mean. Public yelling can be embarassing for the parent, the children, other family members and bystanders, but it is not necessarily wrong. In fact, we don't know what these children did. Perhaps they deserved it.

    Also, anything you do would undermine the father's authority and create a major family issue. Some parents yell. It's hard for us to handle, but it's not necessarily bad.

    I think we need to all get out of each other's business as long as it's not consistent, pervasive verbal abuse (or any sort of physical abuse or neglect).

    Posted by ggg July 1, 10 06:27 PM
  1. As and adult child of a verbally abusive parent, I was stuck in the middle on this. On the one hand, its disturbing and and heartbreaking to see children screamed at in this way, on the other, you can't be sure what the circumstances were. Perhaps, the kids had started a fight, or spit at someone, or maybe they were perfectly innocent of any wrong doing. Problem is; the man must have felt justified in his yelling since your presence didn't stop him. Take a walk the same time and day for the next while and see if they are there, and what is happening. If it seems to be consistent, call authorities, or the school to find out what group this is, and report accordingly. I don't condone undermining a parent's right to chastise their kids, but I also don't condone verbal abuse.

    Posted by lala July 1, 10 06:41 PM
  1. I would stay out of it. Busybodies will get what they deserve!

    Posted by Liz Pakula July 1, 10 07:08 PM
  1. I think that people need to mind their own business. The letter writer has no idea what had gone on previous to his/her arrival. I think that as a society we are so concerned about what other people think about us and how we are being judged as parents that we are no longer able to parent the way we see fit. I'm not saying that people should be able to abuse their children, but it's problematic when one can't discipline their child in public because of what a passerby might think, say, or do. We all need to mind our business and stop judging the actions of other parents!

    Posted by MsMaam July 1, 10 07:25 PM
  1. Depends on what he was saying. Threatening violence, then yes, call police. Swearing, maybe call police. Just being a total jerk, no. I would feel sad and wish I could do something.

    Posted by bv July 1, 10 07:47 PM
  1. This is an issue in public school also. An adult being firm with a child can be an effective way of establishing a boundary which helps the child moderate their behavior. Demeaning kids is not going to help them in anyway.

    Posted by ricksok1 July 1, 10 07:51 PM
  1. Stay out of other people's business. If the person is physically abusing the child, then call the cops. Otherwise, stay OUT. This demand to raise other people's children is leading to the death of discipline in this society. The next generation of spoiled slackers will come from all these overly permissive 'friend' parents who are afraid to discipline their children. The hippie boomers from the 60s now have kids who have no work ethic and all move home to leech off their parents who can't say no. Not my kids.

    Posted by Jim July 1, 10 08:38 PM
  1. "Busybodies will get what they deserve"? We're talking about children here, Liz, not office or neighborhood gossip. This is how abuse is allowed to continue -- too many people shrug and say, essentially, "who cares"?

    That said, although yelling at kids is not good discipline -- for many kids it just beats them down into depression or works them up into anger management problems -- there is little you can actually do. If you were not a stranger but a friend to the children, you could reach out to them in sympathy and just be their shoulder to lean on. As a stranger, there's little available that would actually help. Shaming or calling the father on his behavior would likely just double back on the kids (he'd take it out on them later -- remember, the guy may have an anger issue).

    But I really like Joan Dark's idea: get involved by simply being helpful, and then praising the children to the dad -- so they can see someone thinks well of them, they see there are adults who care (which, if there is more than verbal abuse in the home, could be a lifesaver -- maybe they'd feel encouraged to reach out to someone). Simply saying "these are good kids" in front of the kids cold help them. And by helping out, you are not "confronting" the dad or even really calling him out, so there would be little for him to take out on the kids later.

    Posted by jlen July 1, 10 09:13 PM
  1. I am the letter writer. Thanks for printing my letter and for the opinions, which seem to be that if the children were not being hit then 1) I should stay out of people's business and 2) there probably isn't anything I could do. At least I could signal the children that not all adults think this kind of meltdown is normal. Anyone can be a jerk from time to time and I hope that this was a singular event of jerkdom on this dad's part.

    This was not a case of a ticked off parent yelling at kids for a minute. This was out of control screaming and name-calling that went on non-stop for about ten minutes. As I said in my letter I have no problem whatsoever with people disciplining their children...a few choice words, yelling, a quick spank, whatever...but this was just plain abuse. Thanks to the poster who mentioned that if it continues to be a problem I could report it to the league or to the school. If I see it again, I will.

    As for the idea that what happens with children in society is not the business of anyone but the parent, I disagree. We are a society and to the extent that we can respectfully support and help each other meet the norms of our society, I think we should do so. I've stopped more than one child from running into the road or out the door of a supermarket or into the pool area of a hotel and, for the most part, that intervention has been welcome.

    That is interesting that "yelling is the new spanking." I don't imagine it works very well. It also will be the tone of voice used when the parents are very elderly and the tables are turned.

    Posted by the letter writer July 1, 10 09:25 PM
  1. Screaming for 10 minutes is a little excessive, but we have no way of knowing what set him off. Maybe the children had severely misbehaved (it happens) or maybe he was under some horrific stress. Sure, it's wrong to take out adult stress on children, but the dad is human. Interfering might have made it worse for the child. I think the poster who said she'd pitch in to help had the right idea. Whether the guy was a bad father or just a person who temporarily lost control, he still needed some kind of help that day.

    Posted by Ashley July 1, 10 09:25 PM
  1. Here's my one and only public example of "losing it" on my kids: I was at a public beach one afternoon and the storm clouds were suddenly coming in fast. My son came out of the water when I first called. My 2 girls saw me, but continued to swim, giggling, having fun, etc. I called to them repeatedly, pointed to the dark clouds, and tried in vain to get them (5-1/2 years old) to understand my urgent concern. They didn't - and I had no bathing suit on to go after them. In anger and fear I loudly ordered them in to shore and marched them to the van- in front of those present. Not proud, but not feeling guilty either. It happens

    Posted by rebecca July 1, 10 09:55 PM
  1. Those that are concerned about their intervention making things harder on the kids later are missing one other likely possibility -- they, themselves getting an earful or worse from the parent.

    I am the father of a 6-year-old, and if I were in a public place, verbally disciplining my son (yelling at him), I would go ballistic on any passer-by that floated by on their soapbox to explain the err of my ways.

    "Go F yourself" would be the opening response.

    Posted by big daddy July 1, 10 10:16 PM
  1. I think what's being said is as important as how it's being said. There's a difference between yelling at disobedient kids to get in the car and screaming obscenities as a child or calling him/her names. If the adult was talking to another adult, would it seem like a heated discussion or verbal assault or abuse? If it's abusive to say to an adult, then it's not discipline to say it to a child, in my opinion

    Posted by MomofMany July 1, 10 10:25 PM
  1. The one time I ever saw an adult lose it like that with a kid is when a 8-9 year old locked the keys to a van inside the car as a prank on a 100 degree day with their baby and toddler siblings inside strapped in their carseats and the van was not in the shade.
    The parent was screaming at the kid at full volume until 911 arrived and got the little ones out of the car- oddly none of the spectators or the police intervened cause, well the kid deserved every minute of it.

    Posted by Lucy July 2, 10 05:30 AM
  1. I agree that the best response is to be obviously present, and supportive if possible. You have no way of knowing if this is a regular occurrence or a one-off, or what prompted the tirade. Many (most?) parents have totally lost it with their kids on occasion, in a way that might appear disturbing to a casual observer. I can imagine a scenario where the kids had been just awful all day, and the dad was at the end of his rope and totally overreacted when they squabbled. They might have looked cowed because it was so totally unexpected! Of course it is not ideal discipline, but everyone messes up sometimes. If you see this happening on a regular basis with the same people, it's worth getting involved in some way. I agree with the posters who said that people are far too concerned about what everyone else is doing. As I say to my daughter all the time, 'mind your business'.

    Posted by akmom July 2, 10 06:56 AM
  1. Thanks Mom of Many,
    You have it right...if it had been two adults I probably would have had to call the police. I thought the guy was having a breakdown and I was afraid to address him directly. If he's this out of control often then I hope that he does get into a situation where he can get help...perhaps an anger management class. On the other hand, maybe this Bobby Knight type tantrum from a grown man is something tolerated in conjunction with sports...even kid's teams...and I am too out of the loop to know that.
    Yelling at kids to get out of the water, heck, I've done that myself, I thought everyone was reduced to that at one time or another.
    As for defending yelling, screaming and demeaning your kids in public, perhaps some parents feel righteous about it. But don't think for a minute that it doesn't change who the kids are, who you are, and what people think of you.

    Posted by the letter writer July 2, 10 07:40 AM
  1. A ten minute screaming, name calling rant is NOT discipline. It in no way teaches anyone anything, other than the idea that someone who is bigger and stronger can abuse someone smaller and weaker. It is simply evidence of an adult who has no control of himself, and whose primary concern is to vent his own rage. The children are nothing but possessions to him at this point.

    I agree that this is a very difficult situation in which to intervene. As you can see from most of the comments here, there's this attitude (reminiscent of the fifties) that children are the property of their parents, that the parents have full, unfettered rights to abuse the children, and that parents are entitled to verbally abuse them. This father is teaching his children to become bullies.

    'big daddy', an earlier poster, feels that it's his 'right' to yell at his six year old. He will swear at you, and presumably assume a threatening posture, if you offer any opinion on the matter. He obviously believes that screaming at a very small child is effective 'discipline'. He is mistaken, but he will attempt to 'discipline' you just as much as he will his child. He believes that his screaming is effective discipline because it gets the kid to comply. But this kid has learned nothing except that his father is a screaming bully. Yes, he'll behave next time. He'll also suffer long term consequences, which might include depression, substance abuse, and any number of other difficulties. He is likely to become a bully, if he isn't already one. And his father will be proud that the kid can 'stick up for himself.'

    The comments regarding this letter are horrifying, and more evidence that any concept of community or civil behavior is rapidly dwindling.

    Oh - and should the worst happen, and this guy ends up physically abusing these kids (or their mother), or doing serious damage to them, out will come this same group of posters with the litany of 'lock him up and throw away the key', 'I'd like to get my hands on that guy and do the same thing to him that he did to those poor innocent kids', 'where was DSS'. So predictable.

    Posted by Cathy July 2, 10 08:14 AM
  1. As the parent of a small child, I'm not sure I can justify yelling at the top of my lungs for any reason. I mean, how big of an idiot does it take to lose your cool with a person half your size and half your reasoning ability? Really, you're that frustrated and unable to handle your emotions that you have to make a spectacle of yourself and humiliate your kids? Yelling, like spanking, happens when all other rational ways to handle a situation have been exhausted or dismissed. Maybe your parents did that, but look at the jerk they created. I don't care what any of you say, if I saw a parent, mother or father yelling at a kid or kids at the top of their lung in an abusive way, I'd tell them to tone it down and stop losing their sh-t, for my and their kids sake or the cops would be called. If they told me to "F off" it would only further reinforce the fact that they are the abusive person they appear to be. As for being a busybody - I don't care what people think. I'd rather be a busybody than risk seeing one of those kids on the evening news.

    Posted by Stephanie Rand July 2, 10 08:52 AM
  1. I think there are degrees of yelling. Some abusive and some are not. I do agree that disciplining has become harder and harder because people feel entitled to interfere. I'm not saying not to interfere when it is abuse but I feel when it comes to parenting everyone thinks they are an expert. I have been guilty of yelling and am not apologetic. It happens to the best of us and some situations call for it. Children need discipline and it takes on many forms.

    Posted by ccmom2 July 2, 10 09:12 AM
  1. MYOB.

    Posted by SCEESIC July 2, 10 09:29 AM
  1. yessiree - darned if you do and darned if you don't.

    Having said that, SCREAMING at the top of your lungs and name calling are not something you want kids to grow up emulating.

    Posted by qbqt July 2, 10 10:12 AM
  1. About yelling being the new spanking - I know I was spanked occasionally as a child when I misbehaved, but I don't remember it at all. I do, however, remember times I was screamed at, and to this day my mother and I are not close because I can't abide the annoyed/sharp tone her voice often takes on.

    Parents who make it common practice to yell at their children for discipline's sake - don't be surprised if your children learn to avoid you as they get older.

    Posted by HDV July 2, 10 10:23 AM
  1. My spouse and I lived in a rented duplex. The landlords and their wild children lived downstairs. A few days before Christmas I heard the landlady scream at her kid for 6 straight hours. My thought is that you can't rationalize with people who are that sick in the head. The landlady obviously had severe emotional problems. I didn't dare to intervene. If she's willing to scream at her kid for 6 continuous hours then who knows what she'd be willing to do to a measly renter. She needed long term professional help.....not a one time 10 minute intervention. We ended moving asap. Sorry.....I'm a renter.....not a social worker.

    Posted by Sam July 2, 10 11:26 AM
  1. its either call the poice worthy or mind your own business.

    Posted by mickpc July 2, 10 11:41 AM
  1. Joan Dark - LOVE your suggestion. It lets the father know that others are around but in a non-confrontational, non-accusing way and might help diffuse the situation. I can only imagine how those children felt, being terrorized and humiliated in public. I hope that this was an abberation. To the LW, I would keep an eye out for this family and if it seems to be habit, make a phone call.

    To "big daddy" I don't think most of the adults here are concerned about having a bullying parent turn the verbal abuse on themselves. We are concerned for the children. If I saw someone totally out of control and tried to gently intervene and I then became the target of the verbal tirade then big whoop, bring it on you neanderthal tough guy, I can take it a lot better than your kid. I dare you to escalate it to a point where I could have a legit reason to call the cops. Jerk.

    Posted by Jen July 2, 10 12:30 PM
  1. I just have to comment here. My mother was the disciplinarian in our household and she resorted to whatever means was handy at the time (verbal or physical). She yelled frequently, to the point that I promised myself I would only yell if my child was about to step in front of a car.

    When I was a teenager, friends would say, "Gee, I wish she would hit us and stop yelling." That's how bad it was. Well, at least I think it's abusive. It's demeaning to the person being subjected to it.

    When my boys were small, my oldest son had many ear infections that left him with some hearing loss. He learned sign language (our own brand) and he would respond to my eyes, hand gestures (no, not that), and facial expressions. I really didn't have to yell. My youngest would cry if I even raised my voice. (He never would have survived my mother.)

    So, in a nutshell, I think it's child abuse - period.

    Posted by Decorator July 3, 10 05:00 PM
  1. It's so hard to know what the "right" thing to do is -- and I'm not sure there's ever a perfect response. I like Joan Dark's suggestion. Years ago, I remember speaking with a grandmother-type about seeing a mom lose it in a similar fashion at the grocery store. She said her method is to speak with the parent but in a sympathetic rather than corrective manner: "Don't they just get under your skin some times? Still, your children are just adorable." I've used her approach a few times with strung out parents & find it effective. It doesn't put the offender on the spot, but does put them on notice. Sometimes, a sympathetic ear derails the barrage & gives the screamer a moment to pull it together. Most of us don't want to be abusive but each of us lose it at one time or another.

    Posted by kmn July 4, 10 09:49 AM
  1. Thank you for publishing my letter and thank you all very much for commenting. I have learned a lot and I have some new insight into how parents may feel when they "lose it" in public.
    Asking if there is anything I could do to help certainly is good in the right circumstances. Years ago I came across one of my neighbors screaming and kicking her car in the grocery parking lot. I simply asked her if there was anything I could do to help and it distracted her long enough to get a grip on herself.
    As far as approaching someone who is disturbing the peace with an all-out temper tantrum, I truly hope I don't happen across another one. But now I have some ideas about how to handle things.
    And for those of you who described abuse, yes, I agree totally. I hate to see it and hate to think of children growing up hearing it.

    Posted by The Letter Writer July 6, 10 01:50 PM
  1. Stephanie Rand - I'm glad you are the perfect parent that has never lost her cool. Thanks for calling the rest of us idiots.

    Yes, I have lost it with my child. No, I'm not proud of it, but I don't consider myself an idiot, either. I'm not saying that the dad in the letter is in the right, because I don't think he is. From what I'm reading, he was out of control, which is very different than What I'm saying is that parents are HUMAN and we make mistakes and, yes, even occasionally lose it with our kids. I've never struck my child, but I have yelled, and yelled loud. I've also apologized when I felt it was warranted.
    I don't believe for a second that you have never lost your cool. You can tell me all day long that that is the case, and I'll nod and smile at you while I know that you are completely delusional about your perfect parenting abilities. If it is the case, then I pity your kids for living with an emotionless automaton.

    Posted by MP July 7, 10 09:30 AM
  1. I always knew that I would rather be hit than suffer the "yelling" that occurred in my childhood.

    From what the LW described in her comment here, I really sympathize. It is an incredibly difficult situation to be in and, even as the mother to a young child, I don't know what I would have done in your position. I really don't.

    To those threatening to direct their ire on others who WOULD intervene, I can only say, Bring It. My shoulders are a heck of a lot broader and my skin is way thicker. Just don't, if I ever see you on a 10-minute tirade, screaming and calling your kids names and decide to intervene, think that I'll be easily cowed by you. I grew up with it, I went through Basic Training with it, and I can handle more than you can dish out.

    I, on the other hand, don't yell at my daughter and yet, she knows when we mean business and does, in fact, listen.

    Posted by Phe July 9, 10 08:41 AM
  1. A friend of mine who is a preschool teacher and has had training in this area advises not to confront someone like that. If they really are abusers, when those kids get home, they will have the bejeebers beaten out of them for getting Mom or Dad in trouble.

    Posted by di July 9, 10 09:05 PM
  1. I prefer the parent who is publicly verbaly apperant to thier child. I am in fear of the parent that is very concerned over privacy, the parent who pulls thier child from public forum or gathering to discipline the child in public. One parent of a young man, the boy was once in my brothers care, who pulled his son from school when a teacher raised a flag about some bruises. That boy, Chandler Grafner, was later found dead by the police and the found the boy dead. His temporary parent had locked him in a closet and refused to feed him. Today I yelled at my child; he was whining about his responsibilities. He had wanted to argue with me and I yelled at him in frustration and sent him to his bed. I let him up in 10 minutes and gave him a popsicle and told him the importance of doing his share of work in our household. One of my neighbors did call the police and the office was able to tell that the child was fine and not in danger. As citizens we do not have the ability to tell what is happening to a child that is not ours. My point though is that the average citizen, if concerned, should call the police. The police are not able to solve all problem and in the case of Chandler had benn contacted and conducted an investigation before the major abuse started. In my case, I lost my temper and though I felt put out that a neighbor called the police, I am relieved that someone cares enough for my children they are making sure that I am not a danger to them.

    Posted by Allen August 19, 10 02:47 PM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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