Why you should care
Because if not you, then who?
I’m aware that kids can be difficult, and I’ve heard some children, even older children, occasionally need to be subdued if they are having a tantrum. But while I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s indoor soccer practice last spring, I noticed a mother of a girl on the team standing there with her 12-year-old son.
The boy was not part of the team, and I had never seen him before, but as I was standing close to them I could feel that there was a tension between them. Enough tension that it eventually erupted into a full-on scuffle. A scuffle that quickly escalated to the mother eventually wrestling her son to the ground and sitting on him.
While at first I wasn’t sure what was happening, and I didn’t know the mother well, it seemed like a certain amount of social pressure might … stop it? So I made eye contact with them both and asked the mother if she needed help. She guffawed and rebuffed my help while she slipped her arm around her son’s neck, berating him, demanding respect.
I received an expletive-laced threatening email from the father telling me to mind my own business and watch my back.
He was crying out. Mostly that now he couldn’t breathe.
This wasn’t so much a situation of a child needing to be subdued for his own safety; this was something else. And now I was suddenly horrified to have found myself on the wrong side of history moments earlier when I offered to help a woman who was, at best, aggressively punishing her child. What must the boy have thought of my offer?
I don’t know if she saw this playing out on my face, but she quickly took him home after all of that before returning to practice to pick up her daughter.
Of the few adults present, I was physically closest to the incident, but all of us who had witnessed this surreal display of … discipline? abuse? a really bad night? … attempted to process what we had seen. “Mandatory reporters” in our state are told it’s not their responsibility to determine if what they see qualifies as abuse; their instructions are to report certain questionable behaviors, including choking, and let the authorities determine the severity of the situation.
When asked by another adult what we should do, I said I wasn’t sure. What I saw seemed upsetting, but I knew I didn’t have all the facts. I didn’t know if this behavior was part of a pattern or an isolated incident. I also didn’t know if that mattered.
Technically, the coaches at practice were so-called mandatory reporters, which should have taken the guesswork out of it, but the boy in question was not a member of their team. Additionally, no one wanted to make things worse for the family, and we feared the consequences they may suffer if we had read the situation incorrectly.
Things got only more complicated when I got in the car to drive my own two kids home that night. They wanted me to explain what they had seen.
“I think they were mad at each other and not handling it well.” I was wary of alienating my daughter’s teammate, so I spoke vaguely.
“Oh,” my daughter replied, “I thought that was child abuse, but if you say it wasn’t, I believe you.”
The realization I had inadvertently justified that behavior to my daughter hit me in the chest. It was all I could do to keep the car on the road. I was unable to keep my tears from flowing.
A few weeks later, my daughter pointed to a domestic abuse awareness poster in a restroom where I worked and said, “That’s what I thought was happening at practice, but you said it was OK, right?” I assured her that regardless of what it was called, I would never treat her that way and that it was not “OK.”
The day after the incident at practice, I couldn’t shake my feeling of unease. I was unable to concentrate, and I cried several times. Then I did the only thing I could think to do: I reached out to the mom via email. I felt the need to both let her know there was help if she wanted it and that I wasn’t going to pretend I didn’t see what I saw. We had a reasonable back-and-forth in which she admitted to being overwhelmed by her son’s behavior and at a loss for how to help him. I suggested a few resources she may want to investigate. I didn’t hear back from her.
Several days later, a report was indeed filed about that night — not by me — and an investigation was conducted. I have heard that the authorities deemed the case “unfounded.” The family felt targeted, and the team dynamic was understandably strained. This continued for several weeks until, after a tournament in which all the families were together for two long days, I received an expletive-laced threatening email from the father telling me to mind my own business and watch my back. It wasn’t lost on me that I was the only woman who witnessed the altercation that night and the only person to receive a threat.
I’m still not sure I did the right thing. Should I have done more in the moment? If faced with a similar situation in the future, would I do more? Or would I put my own safety, and that of my family, in front of helping someone else’s child? That night at practice was one of those moments I fear are more common than we’d like to admit — an up-close reminder that there’s horrific pain in the world, and that often, even when we have choices, there’s no right answer.
But no good is ever going to come of a mother sitting on her son at her daughter’s soccer practice. Or choking him breathless.
Ultimately the soccer club stepped in to put some distance between the family and the team. They also offered them a path back. The family did not take that option and have since pulled their daughter from the program. But my kids still talk about that night, and I still think about it too.
I wish I could go back and offer the boy help instead of the mother. At least that way he would know, the way my kids now know, that whatever was going on in that gymnasium wasn’t OK.