I saw the pictures today. The pictures of a girl who had her hair pulled by a man (presumably her dad) while they walked through Walmart. The explanation underneath told of a heated exchange between this man and the woman who took the photo and then it escalated to a conversation with police. It is clear that the woman who took the picture feels she was the only one to stand up for this girl and she wants these photos to go viral.
I disagree. (And for that reason, I am not providing a link to these pictures here)
I don’t disagree that if you see a child you suspect is in danger, it’s important to say something. I don’t disagree with documenting that or reporting it to the appropriate authorities. As a foster parent, I know how vital it is for people to communicate with authorities when they suspect a child may be harmed. I do disagree with taking that moment of this child’s life and blasting it on social media (with her face clearly visible) with the phrase “Please make this go viral.” How does making this “go viral” actually help that child?
Is it possible that this guy is abusing his daughter in all sorts of terrible ways and this public pressure is now going to be this child’s ticket out of this terrible situation? That’s possible. But going about it in this way also comes with a high price for that child. Do you want to be The Walmart Hair Girl when you’re running for student council or trying to get a job or meeting your future in-laws or hoping to get elected to public office? Do you want this to be how people picture your father? Is this moment in time really representative of who you are and who your family is? What right does this child have to some level of privacy or dignity? Wouldn’t it have been possible to create that same public pressure without making that picture so identifying and life altering for this family?
We have become a society that is so quick to want our version of justice without considering all the implications. Based on a few minutes of observation and conversation with a stranger at Walmart, this woman feels confident that this man should go to jail. I highly doubt she has imagined what that would mean for this little girl to have a father in prison. Jail is likely not the solution to this problem, but would be the start of more problems for that family. The crushing reality of having a parent in jail isn’t something I would wish on any child, although I know there are times it is necessary for their protection.
After over a decade of loving children who have come from abusive or neglectful homes I have seen how fiercely protective they can be of their parents, no matter the level of disfunction. We instinctively love our families even when they’ve harmed us. Children feel the shame of family problems as Family Shame and can’t easily recognize that they aren’t the source. Even when children are able to get out of those situations, they still love their biological families and are crushed when they make unhealthy decisions. I highly doubt that the child involved here will be thankful to this “defender” who chose to make this moment so very public and referred to her father as a “bastard” and an “animal.”
I have had the misfortune of stumbling onto a public picture of a child’s biological parent who had gotten into some trouble. I saw what was said underneath by strangers. Words that aren’t repeatable here. Hopes that horrible things would happen to that person in jail. Demeaning words about their worth as a human being. Threats of physical violence if this person were to ever be seen in public.
I read all of that, understanding our collective desire for justice, but also knowing that when a child is old enough to operate Google and decides to search for a biological parent, these are the kinds of things they will find. And it will hurt. We think nothing of the cost to these kids when we say the most outrageous, violent and vile things about their parents.
If you’re concerned about children, consider more than just your desire for vigilante justice when you’re tempted to take a video, share one, or even comment on one. Consider that this child is an actual person, not a cause. They may some day stumble upon your harsh words about people they dearly love and they probably won’t be so thankful you “stood up” for them by publicly humiliating their family. This parent may actually need someone to show them some empathy instead of judgement. They may desperately need parenting classes, the support of a church community, friends to help them figure out other ways of handling their problems. It will become increasingly difficult for them to get the help they need if we’ve publicly shamed them in their community.
I wish instead of taking out our phones and filming those moments, we could offer some kindness to the people involved. Nobody wants to be the parent caught screaming at their child– not just because we don’t want to be “caught” but because we feel enough guilt as it is just because we screamed at our child. How about instead of filming and reporting the woman who left her little one buckled into her carseat so she could run into the gas station and pay, we just offer to stand by the car and make sure the child is safe (for the record, the child is much more at risk walking across the parking lot than safely locked in the car)? What kind of world would it be if instead of berating fellow parents who are making choices we’re concerned about, we befriended them? What if instead of posting compromising pictures of other people’s families, we offered them resources or community? I know these acts of friendship won’t always be successful, but I think they have more power to change a heart than public shaming.
So I will not be passing along those photos or videos of children being mistreated, not because I don’t care about child mistreatment but precisely because I do. These kids are more than those horrifying moments. Their sadness should not be put on parade to make us feel better about our parenting choices. The victims of child abuse and neglect are not stories to me, they are people I love and the vast majority of the time the adults involved were once victims themselves. I can’t imagine how angry or hurt I would be if videos of the abuse of children I loved were posted publicly in a way these kids could never escape. We are further exploiting these children when we make their private pain so public. When we see these people as PEOPLE and not just a reason to be outraged about something, I’m hopeful we’ll stop passing these stories along so callously.