I was shopping in the PX the other day when I overheard a family squabble. At first, the voices were fairly low and reasonable but they quickly got louder, particularly the man’s. I assumed he was the father but since they were in the aisle behind me, I wasn’t sure. He seemed to be reprimanding his daughter. Then I heard a smacking sound and a muffled cry and the father said something like, “I told you to knock it off three times but you wouldn’t listen.”

At this point I was squirming in discomfort. Was the girl all right? Was this just a case of a dad disciplining his deserving kid in public or a case of child abuse or something in-between?

I turned back to the greeting cards I had been looking through in an attempt to keep ahead of birthdays and other occasions. Just then the family passed by and I saw the girl was much older than I assumed — maybe 11 or 12. The man was in a motorized cart. His haircut gave the impression that he was a soldier or perhaps recently retired. There was also a woman who was likely his wife and another girl trailing behind. The man looked angry and the others looked cowed and resigned. But I could be wrong. I often create stories in my head about people that probably couldn’t be farther from the truth. I wondered if the man had been injured during a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan and that he returned a different person entirely.

Much has been written about service members and PTSD but there is not yet a lot of literature on how children — and other family members — are affected by this unfortunate and increasingly common result of more than a decade of war.

But it’s not just military families. We’ve all been in a commissary or a Wal-Mart or a Target and witnessed people interacting with one another, sometimes in what seem to be inappropriate ways.

You can’t help but wonder, if this is how they behave in public, what happens behind closed doors? I’ve seen tired-looking moms screaming at their small children in a grocery store and instantly assumed they were single mothers who were at the end of their rope. (Again, my imagination has a mind of its own!)

No matter what the situation, when we see displays like this, it is hard to know what to do. I doubt that even etiquette expert Emily Post has addressed this in any of her books or columns. In my experience, there is a tendency to make a quick judgment. And, where a child’s safety is concerned, that would seem to be wise. The problem is, life is full of gray areas and there is no manual dictating when to get involved if life or limb is not at stake.

I remember one time being witness to a mother verbally abusing her son in a major chain store. He was perhaps 8 or 9 and I was horrified by the things she was saying and the look on his face. This was a while ago but I recall saying, with an attempt at an empathetic smile, “Bad day?” or something along those lines. She just stared at me and turned her cart around. I never saw them again, but I thought about them for a long time. Verbal abuse can be just as damaging — and permanent — as the physical kind.

I would hope if I saw a child being physically abused, I would react swiftly and appropriately. But life is rarely that cut and dried. There have been times when I have spoken sharply to my kids in public — no doubt about it. When they were younger, I may have even given one of them a small swat on the bottom when all else failed. Others may have seen me do this and wondered about my mothering skills.

For some reason, that family in the PX still haunts me and I wish I could have a do-over. I am not sure what I would do differently but something makes me think they needed help. The truth is that none of us really know what goes on in other people’s home-lives.

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