I had an unsettling experience recently. I was at an informal affair at a friend's house, where both adults and children were present. A little girl, who must have been about 3 or 4, was running around, and she knocked into a table and caused some food and drinks to spill.
Her father went over to her and got down on his knees. I was the only adult nearby, and I was impressed. I figured he was trying to connect with his daughter on her eye level. Only I was shocked by what he then said: "What you did was very stupid. I want you to say to me, 'Daddy, I am very stupid.'" Sure enough, the little girl, intimidated by her father, repeated those words. I was in shock and said nothing. What should I have done?
--Angry and Ashamed
Dear Angry and Ashamed,
You have a right to be both angry and ashamed. When I read your letter I winced, and afterward I felt overcome with pain. Who is this man? How could any father force a child to so humiliate herself and start her on the path to developing a lifelong miserable self-image? I suspect that your instinct was the same as mine--to wish that I could force this cruel fool to say the very words he was forcing his daughter to say: "I am very stupid." Or maybe "I am very evil" would be more apt.
Obviously, if you had any reason to believe that your words could have made an impact, the best thing would have been to confront the man, in as non-confrontational a manner as possible, and say to him, "I'm sure you don't intend it, but forcing your daughter to make such a statement will have a very detrimental effect on her and make her feel that she's an unworthy person."
But from your letter, I get the impression that you didn't know the man at all and therefore felt uncomfortable getting involved. Also, it's possible that you feared that anything you might say to such a boor would antagonize him and that after you went away he would take out his anger on his defenseless child.
If that's the reason you were quiet, here are some additional thoughts about what you could have done. If someone were present at the event who knew the man better than you did, you could have sought out that person, explained what you'd witnessed, and asked if he or she could possibly speak to the father. Alternatively, you could have found out if the man's wife, the child's mother, was present. If so, you could have described the scene to her.
Or, let's assume for a moment that the man was divorced--an assumption that might well be true, since it's easy to imagine a woman dumping such a nasty spouse. If so, maybe you could have made an effort to find out the ex-wife's name and phone number and called and told her what you'd witnessed, remaining anonymous if you felt too nervous to become more directly involved. Having this information might be useful to the woman if she were involved in any litigation trying to limit the father's visitation rights with his daughter.
Another possible action you could have taken: When you heard the daughter saying, "Daddy, I am very stupid," you could have started talking to the girl in a manner that made it seem as if you hadn't heard her father force her to say these words but instead assumed that she'd said them on her own. Then you could have said something along the lines of, "Oh, don't say such a thing. I'm sure it makes your daddy feel so sad to hear his lovely little daughter call herself stupid. You're not stupid just because you knocked over some food or spilled a drink. I've done that plenty of times, and I'm not stupid. And I bet your daddy's done it too at least once." And then turn to the father and ask him, "Haven't you?"
That way, one of two things might have happened. The man might have realized how excessively he'd responded, been ashamed of what he'd done, and acted differently. And even if you hadn't succeeded in modifying the father's behavior, the little girl might remember that there was another adult present who didn't think it was right for her father to make her call herself stupid. At least that could have helped her maintain a better self-image while she continued to live in a verbally abusive household.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.