With some regularity while out and about, I’ll encounter a child being verbally abused. A parent or caretaker may be aggressive, demeaning, or threatening to the child. The child’s pain is palpable, as he tries to compact himself into an even smaller package.
Lest we ever forget, in these moments a parent’s absolute power over their child is poignantly apparent. Some studies, and certainly anecdotal evidence, suggest that emotional abuse can be even more damaging to children than physical abuse.
In these situations I generally try to respond in some way. I might just look at the parent, hoping to convey that their behavior has been noticed and is unacceptable. Or I might comment on the child’s loveliness or desire to please, even if in that moment he is overwhelmed or overstimulated. I try to be conscious of the “bystander effect”, which is the pervasive tendency not to help if there are others present who are not helping.
Even if the parent’s dysfunction or arrogance closes them off to the impact of their behavior, the child is listening. Sometimes just one other adult who offers a different reality can be a lifeline to a beleaguered child. The Talmud teaches that if you preserve a single person’s soul, it is as if you have preserved the soul of the world. Small mitzvahs matter.