Before You Say Something, Ask Something

Before You Say Something, Ask Something

Before You Say Something, Ask Something

We have now, as a society, had “if you see something, say something” thoroughly inculcated into our heads. In many ways, this is a good thing – especially when crimes are stopped. In many other ways, it has become a terrible, frightening thing – such as when awful assumptions get made before anyone bothers to ask a question.

A particularly awful example of this was written up in the Washington Post’s parenting column by mother and author May Cobb, who was describing a pretty wonderful family outing at a park with her 5-year-old son – until they were stopped by police.

We headed back to the car. My husband walked ahead with my son while my mom and I high-fived at what a great day it had been. It was the first time we had left a park without him fighting us, and she was marveling over that. We looked up and noticed two police officers striding toward us. I assumed they would keep walking past us, but one of the officers stopped and removed his sunglasses.

“Can we talk to you a second,” he asked, “about your son?”

My husband called out over his shoulder, “He’s autistic,” and kept walking my son to the car.

The officer’s face burned with embarrassment. I assumed he was getting ready to inform me that rock-throwing wasn’t allowed, but he said, “We got a call about your son. The people who called were worried that because of his hair, and because of his pants, that you weren’t taking good care of him.”

Now my faced(sic) burned with anger and my stomach was sick with shock.

“He’s autistic,” I told them, “and because of his severe sensory issues, we have difficulty brushing and cutting his hair.”

Both officers nodded their heads in understanding.

Cobb explains that because of her son’s sensory processing issues, getting him to wear clothes and keep them on was, in itself, a major accomplishment. And yet, all because they took him out in public, somebody took it upon themselves to call police.

I could feel people in the park watching us, and for a moment I looked at my son through their eyes: a little boy emitting strange sounds that aren’t quite words while running around in funny-looking pants. His baby-fine strawberry blonde hair was tangled in some places and my mom remarked we would work on it that evening. Because he also has sensory processing disorder, he can’t stand having his hair brushed. Also, he is terrified of scissors, so my mom has become his official hairdresser when she is in town. My husband and I assist, holding his hands out of harm’s way and steadying his head as my mother trims his hair.

This entire embarrassing episode could have been avoided in one very simple way. Why didn’t the person who took it upon themselves to call police, instead first ask Cobb about her son?

In a society that is hyper-focused on protesting and “making voices heard” and making grandiose attacks behind the safety screen of social media, we have become hyper-timid about actually asking questions of real people right in front of us.

I am certain that the person who called police felt completely righteous in what they did, and probably thinks they performed their civic duty. I am also certain that the person who called police is a certifiable coward who didn’t want to approach the family themselves, lest they be embarrassed or ashamed by the truth. Let the police take that heat. It’s not like they have better things to do, right?

I’ve been that parent. With three boys with special needs, I can tell you, unequivocally, that assumptions hurt. I’ve had drivers on the road swear at me because they had to stop and wait while my child got on his special education bus. My youngest can produce a glass-shattering decibel-level in screaming that I can easily see someone calling the police about – all for telling him his iPad time is over. I once kept a mandated reporter from making that phone call to police. She saw a neighbor child who, in her eyes, looked malnourished. I knew that child was a cancer survivor. But I kept her from making that call because she took the time TO ASK A QUESTION.

In a weird way, social media has made us scared of each other. We no longer can separate real-life, in-person reactions from outsized online reactions. The platforms that make it easy to overshare, also make it extraordinarily difficult to be personable. It’s now easier to make someone else – like the police – ask the difficult questions in order to avoid confrontation.

When it comes to issues concerning children, it’s time to return to asking questions. If a child is not in immediate danger, can we all agree to consider talking to the parent or guardian first without dialing 911? If the choice is between potential embarrassment and a police report, shouldn’t our first instinct to just be to ask some simple questions?

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1 Comment
  • GWB says:

    But I kept her from making that call because she took the time TO ASK A QUESTION.
    We live isolated lives any more, insulated by our cars, our TVs/whatever, and our smart mobile devices. The fact someone actually spoke to you is amazing.

    I hope Mrs Cobb has great success raising her son.

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