A Street Scene in Chatswood One Struggles to Forget
by Trisha Goddard

From the Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 18, 1997

I still feel sick to the stomach by something I witnessed a couple of Fridays ago. I was shopping in Chatswood when I saw an extremely well-dressed mother ask her small son whether he wanted to go to the toilet.

"No, Mummy," said the boy, who looked to be about four. Not 10 seconds later, clutching his little bottom, he changed his mind and said he wanted to go. I smiled to myself as a mother of two littlies, I well know the "no, I don't, yes, I do" syndrome.

But the mother wasn't having it. "No, we've passed the toilets and I asked you and you said 'No'. So now it's too late."

"But I need to go," the child persisted. "No, too late," the mother countered, and so it went on. I took notice because I was thinking, "Why sweat the small stuff, lady. Kids change their minds all the time. The loo's a few yards away, take him."

But no, she wouldn't, and the conversation seemed to go on and on as we all walked along. When we got outside the shopping centre, I heard her tone change and so turned around, realizing she was really going to have a go at him. What I witnessed is something that has invaded my dreams every night since and had me in tears every now and then throughout the day.

The only way I can describe what next took place is that this immaculately dressed North Shore woman beat up her little boy in the street. With clenched fists she punched him around the head and shoulders with all her might. Picked him up by the neck of his little blue sweater and threw him against a lamp post.

All the time she was screaming: "I told you it was too late. I asked you if you wanted to go and you said no."

People on the crowded pavement froze in horror. I couldn't stand it and before I knew what I was doing I was screaming "Stop it! Stop it! Leave him alone." Without looking at me, she seemed to gain some control and in a terse voice continued admonishing him, then turned to me, all seething aggression, and barked: "You were talking to me?"

I was in tears by now and just kept saying to her: "You didn't have to do that. I'm just so distressed by what you just did."

My tears seemed to have a tiny effect on her. She grabbed the child's hand and walked on. One of the shaken onlookers, a teenage girl, said to me: "Good on you. That was horrible."

I explained that the woman needed as much help as the boy did. I have seen children being smacked before. They howl, they react. This child was being beaten full-force with fists. He did not react. He took it. Maybe he was used to it. I'm glad my children weren't there to witness it. If you're not safe with mummy in a crowded street, then where on earth are you safe?

I am involved in helping to determine the direction of the second phase of this country's National Mental Health Strategy. I am one of a group which pushed very strongly for the focus to be early intervention in mental health: working on the needs of children and adolescents, and their parents. Who the hell is stupid enough to think that good, safe parenting comes as naturally to us as sex and conception do?

Abuse usually has a domino effect through generation after generation and, although we no longer automatically connect mental illness with abusive parenting, who are we kidding? What we need to remember is that bad parents aren't necessarily bad people; they're just people who probably had bad parenting themselves. Get rid of the blame and treat some of the situations that lead to suicide from the day that little baby is born. From the moment that sweet, sad little boy was attacked by his desperate mother a couple of Fridays ago.

Lady, if you are reading this, I do not judge you. I beg you to get help for yourself and your little boy. And if you're reading this and you're not that lady, but feel as a parent you're not coping, if you have a small needling suspicion that something is beginning to slide, there is no shame in getting help. Indeed, it will be the bravest thing you've ever done.

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