What would you do? & What I did instead

There were five hours between the flight my daughter took out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield and the one I took on Friday. I found a quiet booth in a restaurant and went to work. I warned the waitress that I was going to be there most of the afternoon. Thankfully, it wasn’t a busy place. It’s hidden spot that a person has to know about in advance to even find it. So the waitress seemed happy just to have a person to wait on. She kept my coffee warm while I worked.

I’d been there at least two hours when a couple and a child took the table across the way from me. I glanced up long enough to notice that the fellow looked like William Hurt in The Big Chill. Long hair pulled back in a straight ponytail, cashmere jacket, lean, runner’s build. The child, painfully thin, had dark hair that was thick and chin length. I mistook him for a girl, maybe 11 or 12. The woman had the build of prison matron. Her dark hair was chopped unattractively short. I didn’t notice what she was wearing.

I turned back to my work and finished two more cups of coffee before they finished their meal. As soon as the bus boy cleared their dishes, the woman lit into the father. It was the intensity of her voice that got my attention at first. She seemed to be upset over something.

It wasn’t long before she told anyone within five feet what she was upset about as she began to berate her boyfriend over his child. I had noticed someone move past me in my peripheral view so I assumed the child, which at this point I still took for a girl, had gone to the bathroom.

I was thankful the child was gone because the girlfriend was dissing the child in that passionate way of people who are totally pissed off.

“You,” she hissed, “never care what I think. Your child wants to break us up. He’s a juvenile delinquent.”

The father answered something about her not understanding because she didn’t have children of her own.

“I don’t need children of my own to know a spoiled brat when I see one. You continue to baby your boy and allow him to be totally disrespectful to me. When are you going to stand up to him? That’s what I want to know.”

She had gone past talking intensely and was creating a scene. The louder she got, the more quiet he got. After a few minutes I couldn’t make out a word of what he said but whatever it was, she had an argument for it. She talked about her own father and how he would never put up with such foolishness out of a child, about how terrible of a father her boyfriend was, and just what was going to do about showing her how much he cared about her.

He asked her to calm down.

That only  made her more irate. She began to list all the offenses his son had ever done. After nearly 20 minutes of this bickering back and forth, I got up to the restroom myself. I thought if I made some motion, the two might stop their fighting before the child came back to the table. Only then did I realize the child had never left the table. He had been there the entire time. I realized then he was a he and not a she, too. His hair covered his drooping head. His body curled in on itself in a crescent-moon way.

I thought that my moving around might dispel the woman from her attacks on the boy that she continually referred to in third-person, as if  the kid wasn’t present. It was obvious that the child was wishing he was in invisible at that moment. I think his dad felt that way, too.

When I returned from the bathroom, she was still at it. She had  litany of issues she wanted to address and she wanted to do it right there, right now. I returned to my seat and began to pack up my stuff. It was impossible to work with her within earshot.

Before I tell you what I did next, tell me what would you have done?


It was interesting reading your comments. I wish I had thought of the ice cream idea. I did think of the prayer thing, but I think I was praying something along the lines of So help me God.

Really. I started packing up my computer. Got all my stuff ready to just leave the place. But she said something else. I don’t remember what it was exactly now but as Tim was so apt to note, I was her primary audience. She was tearing into this guy in front of his child because she saw me there. She knew that she had an audience. Perhaps she felt that since I was alone I would be cheering her on in her crusade against the man and his child.

If so, if that’s what she thought, she picked the wrong gal.

And she happened to pick me the week before I launched into a book tour addressing some of the very mythology that played into her hand.

So right before I turned to leave, she said something so obviously rude and unkind that I actually had the thought cross my mind that surely I was being set up. This had to be some sort of ethical dilemma reality show. I looked around to see if ABC’s John Quinones was lurking nearby. Okay. I didn’t really look for John but it would not have surprised me if he did show up. I kept thinking who does this? Who acts like this woman in public? Who berates a child in front of strangers this way?

Whatever she said I’d had enough. I turned on my heels and walked over to their table.

“Listen,” I said by way of acknowledgement, “I know this is none of my business but you are totally out of line.” I looked straight at the woman. “This is emotional abuse, talking about this child as if he doesn’t even exist.” I turned to the boy. His chin rested on his chest. He was clearly distraught. “This is wrong,” I said to the father. “Why do you let her talk to your son this way? There are a million women out there who would treat your child with respect. If I were you I’d be looking for a new girlfriend. I would never let another person treat my child the way she is treating yours.”

I don’t know who was more mortified — me or the dad.

I know you all think I will say and do anything but this was way outside even my comfort zone.

John Quinones did not come to my rescue.

The Girlfriend was irate.

I’m pretty sure I saw fire come out of her nostrils.


“Perhaps,” I said. “But I just finished writing a book about child abuse and I recognize child abuse when I see it. The way you are speaking to this child is abusive. It’s wrong and you need to stop it. He’s a human being. You need to treat him with respect.”

Again I turned to the dad: “You need a new girlfriend, one who will be kind to your son.”

The boy looked up and gave a slight smile. I could tell in his heart he was cheering. I wanted to scoop him up and take him far, far away from there.

Instead, I just grabbed my bags and went to pay the cashier.

My waitress came over. She’d seen the whole thing. She was shaking her head side-to-side, as if to apologize for something she didn’t do.

“It’s wrong,” I said, handing her my credit card. “It’s wrong to treat a child like that. That woman is just being a bitch.”

I said it quietly, whispering really. And we were a good six feet from the woman but she wasn’t about to let me get out the door unscathed. After I paid the bill, she jumped to her feet and confronted me.

“THAT was NONE of your BUSINESS,” she said. “YOU GOT THAT? IT was NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT WAS GOING ON!!!” She was inches from my face. It occurred to me that I needed to take the boxing class that Miz Shelby has been taking.

“It’s my business when I see children being mistreated,” I replied. “You are abusive.”

She stormed off and I got a phone call from Bob Welch at the Eugene Register Guard. Bob was calling to interview me about A Silence of Mockingbirds.

And for the upteenth time in my writing career, I was reminded once again that I can’t preach what I don’t practice.

Was I right or wrong to intervene that way?



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  • I hope to God you said something. I hope to God I would have, too.

    A (female) friend of mine posted this on FB a couple of weeks ago – I am so thankful for her gumption:

    “Ok, I know I worked for the fire dept and dealt with a lot of bad situations but I do not over react! Tonight in the hotel, a nice Embassy Suites in Dallas, the mom next door totally screamed at her kid then did “something” that the child then instantly started screaming bloody murder. I called the front desk they told me they didn’t have security so all they could do was call up to the room. Really like that is going to do anything if the kid is being abused. After calling again I went with Dan and knocked on the door loudly, twice. No answer! Called back to the front desk asked them to call the police, they told me they wouldn’t because they can’t do anything about what I hear through a wall! I said then I will, the girl said…..”so, you do it” Unbelievable! We were getting ready to call the police and a bell hop came to knock on their door. I went out and she told him the kids were just being loud and she was sorry, I said right in front of her she was lying and I heard it all! She closed the door and the bell man went and called the police. By the time the police got here she had quickly bathed them (we heard it) and she had them in bed. So convenient. She changed her story to being her daughter who is from another country and needs meds and get quite loud sometimes. REALLY! This isn’t my first child abuse situation lady! No one did anything! Just needed to say that I am really glad I am not afraid to stand up for little kids who have no voice, and I will keep doing it!”

  • Dorcie

    I’d like to think I would have called the waitress over and ordered a hot fudge sundae for the boy to let him know he had one friend in the world. Maybe that would have gotten the adults attention. But……I probably would have tried to get his attention a few times to give him a smile and a nod and then, gather my stuff and leave. After reading you book last week, I hope I would do something……

    • calling the waitress over is a good idea to start. that would have to make the “lady” stop, right? and provide an opportunity to inject some truth and love . . .

  • Mandy M

    Something. I hope I would have done something. But I have no idea what I would have done or could have done. I look forward to hearing about what you did/didn’t do. What a horrific peek at the inside of that child’s life.

  • Diane

    I don’t think I could have asked them to take their disagreement to a less public place and mention it might not be in the “child/brat’s” best interest to have those discussions in front of him.

  • Gboone23

    I would look right at the father, ignoring the ‘bitch’ and ask him if he realized what ‘EMOTIONAL ABUSE’ was. Right after that question, not expecting an answer, I would quickly ask him if he realized how much his child depends on him to provide a safe, secure environment. I would point out how the ‘bitch’ of a girlfriend was emotionally abusive to his child. Of course then the ‘bitch’ would probably get in my face, at which point I would say, ‘Get out of my face, or I will call 911….. and hopefully I would need to call 911 so that there would be a record of that incident and hopefully a wake-up call to the father. What kind of father allows someone to treat their child like that?

  • Jerespoon

    There situations are so sad…..I HOPE I would have gone up and offered the child an ice cream or something – just to break up the attack. I guess my next response would depend on what the lady or man says to me.

  • Ladydiole

    I didn’t mean that I would all him a brat..I meant that facetiously.

  • Ddjrfd

    I hope that I would have had the backbone to have gotten up and did something. Maybe try and take the boy to someplace within their sight but out of earshot, but alas that wouldn’t work either, but I may have at least said something. I’m pretty quiet but when someone gets me going, WATCH out..Can’t wait to hear the rest of this story

  • Susierawe

    I hope I would have been bold enough to stand and in a strong voice ask the LORD to be present, to calm the situation and bring peace where there was none and to proclaim to the boy that Jesus loves him. Hopefully there would be the opportunity to reminds the father that his first responsibility was to protect his child.

  • I am dying to know what you did… since I know you are a Mama Bear and because I just finished Silence of Mockingbird. I think I would have asked the father if I could take the kid to get a donut (or something similar) until the &$#@# was done ranting.

  • Anonymous

    I would politely interrupt and speak directly to the child. Look him in the eye and tell him how special he is to God and to me and not to ever let anyone tell him otherwise. Can’t do much about the adults in that scenario, but a word fitly spoken could go a long way with the child.

  • Fryejulie1

    I would have gone over to her and told her to take a look at the child and then run to look for a security guard.

  • Tim

    Pray. It’s what I do in these situations. God has at times prompted me to then act visibly, but not always. Prayer is powerful stuff, even when we don’t see actions accompanying it. (If the situation is patently dangerous for the child, then prayer and action would occur together.) In fact, I’m praying for them now.


  • I started writing what I’d do, but then wasn’t sure. I know I try to get eye contact with children and send love to them; acknowledge what is happening, when things are not good. In that situation, I would say something to one or both of the adults.

    I have a friend who once flew on a plane next to two adults and a child. she could tell something was wrong. that the boy was not being treated right. she interacted some with the boy, but backed off when the “dad” got angry with the boy for talking with her.
    Later that day she saw the boys’ picture in the paper. he had been abducted. he was never found.

    She’s had to live with that ever since. How do you know what to do? and when? What difference can you make long term? do you force yourself into a situation?
    Obviously in my friend’s situation, she could have probably saved a life.

    Praying and listening must be the first thing. then act on what you hear.

  • Virgil

    I would try to alert a few people to the realities of what feminism has brought us. It has brought us the kind of verbal violence you’ve written about here. Feminists brought us easy no-fault divorce, without which this situation would not have existed. Feminism created a cultural environment in which women feel no anxiety about berating a man. In fact, I suspect one reason this woman spoke this way of the child is because the child was male and she hates men. Finally, feminism has removed all boundaries on women’s public behavior. Thus, you had the joy of witnessing this scene.

    • Tanya

      Feminism to blame? Wow. That’s just . . . unbelievable.
      Sometimes people make a comment, and all it does is make you really, really wonder what they could possibly be like in person. And man, what’s YOUR story?

      • Tim

        Andrea, if you want Virgil’s story you should click on the post I put in the response to Karen here, and then read Virgil’s comment and click over to his website. It’s an eye-opener. He asserts one reason for the site is to teach “the art of being cool”. I gave up trying to be cool long ago.

        I agree with you too, the fact that someone can read about child abuse and then blame it on feminism is mind-boggling. Women and men were abusing children long before feminism existed, and the are doing so in families and cultures where feminism is utterly rejected as well as those in which it is fully embraced. It’s horrifying and sickening and should be opposed at every opportunity.


    • Virgil: What utter nonsense.

  • Sharon O

    I would have asked for the manager of the restaurant, and would have wanted that person to deal with it appropriately… in fact I would have gone to the ‘counter’ or wherever to get his or her attention.

  • Three cheers right here! Good for you! I figured Mama Bear was going to come out. The only thing better would have been a swipe with Mama Bear’s paw.

  • andrea

    Absolutely right. And you may have saved that child right. When I compare notes with others, like me, who also had tough childhoods I think what saved me is that I never, not for one minute, thought that I was being treated the way a chld should be. And there were adults around me who were never as courageous as you, but who treated me well, so I could see the difference.

    Those kids who are really screwed are the ones who think they deserve it. One parent abuses, the other is silent and complicit. What’s a child to think?

    So good for you — the only other thing you might have done is call the police, or better, asked the waitress to. They might have shown up to say, “someone has called to say they are concerned about a child and we’re just checking out things.”

    Sadly, this won’t do anything immediately, but you can hope that Child Protective Services are keeping a file. If neighbors call (frequently!) and strangers report, it will start to add up, and maybe make a difference.

    Thanks so much for what you did!

  • I personally think that God placed you in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. By the way, most women can hear the word “bitch” a mile away and with earplugs in…heh.

  • Susierawe

    Your response was truly fitting to the situation. Surely God is using you in this arena tremendously. It was wonderful that you were able to encourage the child – might make an impact for life regarding his self-esteem.

  • Gloria

    I am so very proud of you and the way your responded. You gave that boy a champion even if only for a brief moment. I pray he will remember your words and talk to someone he can trust about the abuse he is receiving from his father and his girlfriend. I would like to think I would have been as brave as you! You kept God’s appointment. Thank you!

  • Tim

    I agree with Gloria and others about your actions, Karen. I’m proud of you, and I’m impressed once again by how God works through his people. God blessed you, and he blessed that boy through. He also blessed the man and woman, even though they may never recognize it.


  • Fiddlepeg

    You rock, Karen!

    • Tim

      Yeah, what Fiddlepeg said.


  • Diane

    It’s probably not as important what you said and whether or not if it was exactly the “right” thing but that you did take action. Did you have a copy of your most recent book that you could give the father??? Or, maybe you wanted to remain anonymous after the interaction….

    • No. I’d given my extra copy away at the other airport to the Alaska airlines gal. Geeish… I knew I should have asked for it back. Hahah.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Karen; I don’t think I would have had the guts for that.

    Although…I have been in situations where I have called the police to deal with domestic violence. I was also recently in a situation where I was observing a verbal dispute between a man and a woman to make sure it didn’t progress to physical violence, and was told by the man to buzz off because it wasn’t any of my business. It scared the crap out of me (and my wife) but I have no doubt that standing up to (potential) abuse is the right thing to do.

  • Completely right. You spoke truth. You were not rude or abusive in the way you did it. Even if no one but the boy heard it, you confirmed for him what he knows in his heart. He knows that not everyone is like these two “adults”. He knows that there are others who would see value in him and treat him with respect.

    That might be the extra thing that gives him hope and the courage to move on and away, as soon as he is able. or to look for people who treat him with love and respect. Well done!

  • TheOtherDave

    Karen you were absolutely right to intervene. Perhaps your forthrightness will inspire the father to man up and dump this horrible woman.