What do we owe to others? – Stacey Broom

This post isn’t bioethics, but rather ethics more generally (though certainly it could be brought around to bioethics only I don’t want to make the post too long). But since I said there would be a post before Christmas, here it is. (Everyone else was busy so you’re stuck with another post by me!) I did um and ah about whether to post this now as it is pretty grim, but the questions I ask within the post, I believe, are important.

I wrote my Honours thesis in philosophy on ‘Our obligations to particular others,’ where I questioned who we might have obligations to and why.  I feel compelled to write this post today simply because these are questions that puzzle me, and have been more so over the last few days.

I’m home for the holidays in a small city in New Zealand and have unfortunately left my Christmas shopping till the last minute, which has meant trips into the very, very busy mall. My excuse is that Christmas presents wouldn’t have fit in my suitcase so I have to buy them here.  So I’ve ventured into town a couple of times so far, just sort of looking around.  Both times I have been witness to some questionable parenting techniques. One called a child ugly, as in “Hey ugly, get back here.” Another told an infant to “Shut up” after the child had been squealing for about 5 minutes (there was no attempt to quiet the child before the father erupted).  And another example yesterday, where a woman was cold to a child who was visibly upset, telling her to “Get her arse back here” and “What bug crawled up your arse?’ the child was probably 10.

After posting on Facebook my disapproval of parents who swear and yell at children like this, I received some surprising responses.  It’s Christmas, so perhaps I ought to cut parents some slack, said one commenter, which others then ‘liked.’  Is swearing, yelling, and abusing children really okay because it’s Christmas-time?  Should parents really be cut some slack because they’re a little, or a lot, stressed?  Does stress really justify swearing, yelling, and abusing (in whatever form it may take)? My opinion is that the answer to these questions is, No – absolutely not.  I was never sworn at, yelled at, or abused in any other way as a child, so parenting can definitely be done without these “techniques.” My mother had a wonderful technique that she employed when required. She would crouch down so that her eyes were level with mine and she would say, in almost a whisper but with just the right tone, “You do what you’re told, or else.” I’m not really sure what the “Or else” level actually was, but toys were confiscated for a period of time occasionally, so I suspect that would have been the consequence. My point is, even a mere whisper can be particularly effective.

To get to the title of this post – what puzzles me is what are we supposed to do, if anything, about situations like these? Should we confront parents who call their children ugly, and attempt to explain the damage that that can do to a child’s self worth? Do we ignore a parent relishing in the audience they have while chastising their child on a bus? Or what of a situation in which a parent states “I don’t care about the anti-smacking law, if you don’t do what I say you’ll get what’s coming to you when we get home”?

Do we have any obligations toward the children in these scenarios? Do we have any obligations to the parents?  Should the time of the year be taken into account?

In New Zealand we sadly have some of the most shockingly high statistics of child abuse and youth suicide so I really feel that perhaps something should be done when confronted with scenarios like this, but just what that something should be – I really don’t know. I wonder if we have a right to intervene in the parenting choices of others. I wonder, also, whether we might, in fact, have an obligation to do so (for both the sake of the child and society).

If the last couple of weeks has taught us anything, it should be that children need to be cherished.  I suspect that there are many parents the world over who would give anything for the stresses of Christmas, including squealing, demanding, naughty children. But those parents will never get to hear their children’s voices again or see their little faces on Christmas day.

If people get on your nerves this holiday season, maybe take a breath, just pause, and consider whether exploding at this person is really worth it. Consider how it will make that person feel. Consider how it will make you feel if it should happen to be the last thing that person ever hears.

Let’s adopt an attitude of respect, not just over the holiday season, but always. Lead by example – respect others and it might give them more reason to respect you.

Happy holidays to all of you out there. I wish you peace, love, and good will.  And let the new year bring with it happiness and hope.

Stacey Broom


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