Walking home along the beach from the café yesterday I passed a group of young men – probably in their late twenties and early thirties, with two small children, still toddlers. The men were having a great time taking photos, laughing and full of infectious energy. I didn’t register at first what they were doing.
Then I did. One of them was dragging one of the toddlers down to the water’s edge. The child was screaming in terror. The man would then run back up the beach, and they’d all laugh at the child’s terror as it tried to run away from the waves. Laughing at the tops of their voices, taking photos. As soon as the kid got up towards to them, the man would force it to go back down.
I watched in horror. I’m still shaking inside from it. I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes it’s not a good thing to interfere. I walked past them, then I just couldn’t do it. I turned back and asked them if they knew how terrified the child was. I begged them please not to do what they were doing any more. I wasn’t actually angry with them, I was just pleading. I said can you imagine if a man who was three times your size was forcing you to into the thing you’re most terrified of, and a group of giants was mocking and laughing at your terror – photographing it, humiliating you.
They carried on laughing at first, but I carried on saying please, this isn’t funny for the child. Who moved up quite close to me. I touched his head, I said “look, he’s such a tiny child”. Then the man with the camera stopped laughing, and said “you’re right, this isn’t good”. And they all stopped laughing. They actually hadn’t realized what they were doing. I can’t get my head around it.
They weren’t bad men, they were just totally unaware of the child’s experience. How is that possible? The child was screaming. Usually I perceive abuse as being about a bad person. But this wasn’t about bad. It was about ignorance.
I walked on, and looked back. The man who’d been forcing the child down the beach into the water was walking, holding the child’s hand. Very lovingly.
I know that just from a selfish place, it was a huge relief to see the (albeit unconscious) abuse stop. It was an amazing feeling to be the one who got it to stop. I usually don’t get involved, but I had to yesterday. I just couldn’t walk away. Now I hope they don’t punish the child because of it.
Adults can be so unaware of children’s sensitivity and needs. It makes all the molecules in my body fizz around wildly. I wasn’t angry yesterday, and I’m glad I wasn’t, I’m glad I was able to be gentle and understanding.
But today I’m angry. I want to be big enough and strong enough to be able to physically bully and terrorise those men until they cry and scream and beg for me to stop. I want to see in their faces and panicked bodies the same terror they caused in the child. What did they think the screaming was about? Or are children so unimportant to them? Why was it funny to terrify a child? What kind of monsters are they?
I want to pick that child up and hold it, and show it that there’s nothing wrong with its fear, I want to see it feel safe, be able to trust, smile and be happy in its world. I want to take violation of its vulnerability out of the equation of its life. I want to protect it from the savage emotional abuse caused by ignorance. I want to take it far away to a safe place where it never gets hurt ever again.
I can’t do anything about that child. Did I make it worse for him or did I at least give him an experience of what it is to be protected by a woman from bullies? What if he has nightmares about the ocean, will somebody come to him and hold him and ask him what’s the matter? Will somebody show him how not to be scared of the ocean? Will someone take him seriously?
The man shoving him towards the water was his father. Will he be more sensitive in the future or will he be worse? Was there anything I could have done to make it better? I walked away clear that I’d been kind to the men; I didn’t laugh at them, or humiliate them, I didn’t abuse anybody, but maybe I pressed the father’s button.
I don’t feel angry any more. I feel sad.
Sad about whatever happened to him when he was a kid that turned him into such an ignorant bully who could get off on his child’s terror. The sins of the father…