From Holy Terrors to Sacred Beings

Andrea Grazzini Walstrom
June 29, 2003

Parents know—and experts confirm—that while a full-fledged tantrum thrown in the privacy of a child's own home is hard to watch and difficult to respond to effectively, it's the one that takes place in the supermarket check-out lane or at the church supper that is most likely to push parents to their limits.

Yet these most challenging of childhood behaviors often do take place on the public stage, where scornful looks and mumbled admonitions from passersby can add fuel to the fire for both parent and child. Child abuse experts say that when parents feel ashamed or humiliated by their children's behavior in public, the parents' reactions are sometimes stronger then they would be at home, and can more quickly deteriorate into abuse.

A Community-Based Approach
The idea behind the Wakanheza Project is to create a community in which more people reach out to help rather than leap to judge a parent trying to deal with a child's public tantrum, meltdown or explosion.

Developed by the Initiative for Violence Free Families and Communities in Ramsey County of St. Paul in collaboration with the Ramsey County Department of Public Health, Wakanheza is named for the Dakota word for child that translates to "sacred being."

According to Don Gault, who conceived the project, if communities can create a culture that respects children as sacred beings fewer children will need Child Protective Services (CPS). Gault is the manager of healthy communities for the St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health.

Gault and his team are spreading the Wakanheza message in two ways: one is a public awareness campaign, using free posters and brochures that urge the public to 'Lend a Hand to Children and Families'; the other is customized training for people who work in libraries, malls and other public places where children often melt down.

The Wakanheza literature, which is available at social service agencies, healthcare facilities, libraries and schools, makes three simple suggestions: 'Appreciate, Assure and Help Out' parents. The program encourages people who witness parent and child clashes to offer a smile, a kind word or a helping hand.

In the one- to four-hour training sessions, people are encouraged to let the parents they encounter know that they understand how challenging parenting can be. Participants are encouraged to offer a simple smile, and, better yet, an affirming statement, like: 'You're doing a great job.' One useful approach is for people to share a similar story from their own experience as a way of reassuring the parent that the child's behavior is normal. An offer to help out by opening doors, distracting the child, or offering to bag groceries can be invaluable.

Making Prevention a Priority
The idea for Wakanheza sprouted from dissatisfaction with the way child welfare systems respond to child abuse but don't focus on preventing it. The latest figures from The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that reports of child abuse rose slightly in 2000. Except in rare cases, most laws mandate that CPS cannot intervene until after the fact, after allegations meet specific definitions of abuse and neglect.

"People are totally frustrated," by the shortage of prevention strategies for heading off child abuse, says Diane DePanfilis Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Institute for Human Service Policy and co-director of Center for Families at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. DePanfilis applauds the Wakanheza concept. "It makes a lot of sense," she says. "A lot of people want to be helpful but don't go out of the way."

Parenting in Public: Humiliation and Frustration
Michelle Basset, a mom in St. Paul, Minnesota could have used some help during a particularly difficult day at the store. As she tried to corral 3-year-old Graham, 9-month-old Lucia started gnawing on some plastic. The other women in the store clearly disapproved. "I wasn't getting out of the way fast enough and all they could say was 'don't let your child eat plastic,'" says Basset, who was incredulous that the women, most mothers themselves, were so critical. "I was in tears by the time I left."

That sense of public humiliation and isolation can lead to parents overreacting to their child's behavior, says Rose Allen, of the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Allen, who leads Wakanheza training for public establishments, says that when parenting is 'a spectator sport,' parents can feel they are being scrutinized for their actions.

The Wakanheza training includes a discussion on the different views people have about parenting and discipline, an exercise on how parents feel about being in public with kids, and tips on how to intervene when a parent-child interaction is escalating.

Allen says one of the biggest barriers to supporting parents is the urge to judge them. While it's tempting to question a parent's discipline or foresight, Allen encourages onlookers to keep an open mind to the trials of parenting. "You don't know that the mother hasn't already been on three buses with her four kids that morning."

Simple Ways to Help
Ali Turner, the Senior Youth Services Librarian at Hennepin County Libraries, in Minneapolis, found that sometimes all people need is permission to help families. From the training, the library system developed guidelines for staff to do whatever it takes to welcome families while respecting other patrons. For example, if a child is disruptive during checkout, a librarian might guide the family to the express checkout lane or escort the child to another area while their parent finishes checking out.

Allen would like to see retail stores offer kid-friendly checkout lanes, where built in toys or activity centers replace candy and other irresistible items which can be near-impossible for kids to avoid, and all too often spark parent child power struggles. Where possible, she also suggests site enhancements, like play areas or simple grab bags with toys or crayons to keep kids occupied.

Colleen Huberty, a supervisor with the Women, Infants and Children health and nutrition program in St. Paul, has seen the effects of Wakanheza first hand. After participating in the training, Huberty and other clinic management decided to invest $500 to equip several clinics with kid tables and toy chests.

Huberty says that the tension level in the clinics is way down. Before, children would often disrupt their parents and clinic staff. Now kids flock to centralized play areas, where they busy themselves with coloring pages, blocks or a video. "Now it's hard to get them to leave," says Huberty.

Tantrums, Meltdowns, Explosions: Normal Kid Stuff
Dr. Jon Markey, a child psychiatrist at William Beaumont Hospital Center for Human Development in Berkley, Michigan, says that many people still believe that 'children should be seen and not heard.' But Markey says grocery store tantrums, church service wiggles and waiting room fidgeting are developmentally appropriate for young kids. While parents are urged to avoid bringing children out when they are tired or hungry, unwanted behaviors can occur in the best of circumstances.

Basset says she doesn't take her children out during peak meltdown times like naptime or mealtime. Even so, "Plenty of times out in public I've gotten 'the look,'" she says. Basset, who became a stay-at-home mom after 10 years of post-graduate education, feels so judged in public that she's tempted to wear a badge that says: "I've studied for this job (of parenting). I'm doing the best I can."

Overcoming the Reluctance to Get Involved
While Wakanheza principles might seem like common courtesy, putting them into practice is not so straightforward. A 1999 survey by Prevent Child Abuse America found that only one in four people had taken action to prevent child abuse in the previous year. Just over 50% of people who observed an abusive or neglectful act intervened. Half of the people who didn't respond said it was none of their business.

In a society that values individual privacy, people worry that an offer to help could be misconstrued as an intrusion. Bev Wittgenstein, who lives in West St. Paul, Minnesota recalls hesitating when she saw a young child who was lost at a shopping mall. Although Wittgenstein helped the boy, she wondered if someone might think she was kidnapping him.

Gault and Allen are quick to point out that people shouldn't approach a tense situation if they feel uncomfortable and should instead alert police or security. But only a small percentage of people in the Prevent Child Abuse survey cited fear of the parent's reaction for not getting involved.

Gault thinks attitudes are changing. His office is inundated by requests for Wakanheza literature and training. Among others, the St. Paul public school district and a large grocery store chain recently met to discuss how to implement Wakanheza in their organizations. Allen likens the effort of Wakanheza to the bumper-sticker campaign to 'see motorcycles,' "We need to see families," she says.


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Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer in Burnsville,