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I was looking out my window this morning, and noticed a father walking quite a distance ahead of his little girl who appeared to be about 2 years old. It was easy for a car to turn into a driveway and since the little girl was so small the car wouldn't see her and she could have been hit, or the little girl could have run into the street. My concern is, should I have said something to him? We are all cautious of correcting other parents' behavior, but what if something could have happened to that little girl and I didn't point it out to the father? In light of a recent tragic crash involving a mom who apparently was driving intoxicated, I am taking the concept of accident avoidance more seriously. Your advice?


Charlotte Cowan, M.D. Replied: This is a great question that raises important societal and ethical issues. America is increasingly becoming a culture in which we are taught to "mind our own business" and to avoid expressing concern when witnessing an event that is illegal or dangerous or both. In the world of children, this includes playground safety, gun safety, safety in the water and in cars, etc, etc. What should you do when you see children left alone in a car while the car is running? This happens all the time, all across America. These events invite and/or require your response. In figuring out for yourself the right thing to do, you might consider the following: Is your obligation different if the person endangering a child is a neighbor, a family member, or a perfect stranger? Is your obligation different if what you see puts the child at risk for something unpleasant (ie being stung by a bee) or for something life threatening (ie walking into a busy street)? These are questions that each of us must answer for ourselves. I have a big mouth where children are concerned. Of course I am a pediatrician, and it is my profession and passion to keep children safe. My experience is that all parents worry about their children,too. My own answer to the above questions is to ask both what the risk to the child is (potentially serious?) and whether I would want to be warned if it were my child. If the answer to that is YES, then I always put the child ahead of any concern about what an irritated grown-up might say to me. I will get over the grown-up's words—however harsh they are. The bottom line is this: If in speaking up I have helped prevent a child's injury and/or death, then there is no question that expressing my concern was the right thing to do. My advice is to trust your instincts and speak up for those children who are too young to speak for themselves! And thank you for daring to care. Charlotte Cowan, M.D.
Posted On 2009-08-17 14:19:11
Jim Taylor, Ph.D. Replied: This is a judgment call. Every parent makes a decision—hopefully a deliberate one—on the rewards and risks of anything their children do. Situations that have a low probability of minor consequences are definitely more tolerable than those with a high probability of severe consequences and, in both cases, the decision is relatively easy. The difficult decisions are those in which there is a low probability of severe consequences. Do you play the low odds of something bad happening because the benefits outweigh the risks? Or do you avoid even the low odds (and perhaps appear overly protective) because, if something does happen, however unlikely, you wouldn't forgive yourself? I must admit that I give my two girls, 4 and 2, considerable latitude in exploring their world beyond me and my wife. I believe the benefits are significant: self-confidence, independence, exploratory behavior. Of course, we set limits based on the environment they are in and the risks of harm. Each parent has to decide their comfort level for their children's explorations (and I usually allow myself to feel a bit uncomfortable for the sake of their development). Certainly a child who is impulsive (and could, for example, run out into the street without thinking) needs to be on a "short leash." Others, like our daughters, who have shown good judgment can be given a longer leash. At the same time, if you see genuine danger, it might be appropriate for you to raise your concern to the father. The key is how you approach the father. Confronting him with something like: "How could you be so irresponsible…" will probably not work. But you could strike up a conversation with him that raises his awareness of the issue: "I notice that you let your daughter roam pretty far from you. I'm always curious about how parents decide how far is too far."
Posted On 2009-08-10 11:03:00
Dr. Tom Greenspon Replied: This is a tough question, and one that many of us are confronted with in one way or another. There is no question that this was a dangerous situation for the little girl, and that the adult was acting negligently. Whether he was lost in his own thoughts, or angry with her, or impatient -- whatever the context, he was absent from his post as parent or adult-in-charge. I think we should all have the courage to say something in these situations. To remove some of the potential tension, you can start by saying you don't want to intrude, and you are not meaning to be critical, but you are worried about the little girl's safety. In a tone that indicates you are addressing your concerns, rather than trying to judge, you might mention that you are aware of too many accidents that occur to children, and that you just want her to be safe. He might be grateful for the advice; he might also feel shamed, or bothered, or angry. If he ignores you or argues, you can simply say you just felt the need to say something, and then leave. You will have done the right thing, even if you can't control the outcome. These days, the "village" it takes to raise a child often includes strangers!
Posted On 2009-08-09 16:51:52
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