Experts Condemn Georgia Man Who Slapped Crying Child in Wal-Mart

Roger StephensGwinnett County Sheriff?s Department/AP Photo
Roger Stephens

Everyone seems to have an unruly child story -- the toddler who wails through dinner at a five-star restaurant, the bored 4-year-old who kicks the back of the plane seat, the kindergartner throwing a tantrum over a box of Popsicles.

Most of those people just suffer in silence, sharing eye-rolls or shooting not-so-subtle glares in the parents' direction. But not Roger Stephens.

The 61-year old Atlanta area man caused a sensation this week when he hauled off and slapped a crying 2-year-old at a Stone Mountain, Ga., Wal-Mart after warning the little girl's mother "If you don't shut that baby up, I will shut her up for you."

Video: Stranger slaps screaming child in Wal-Mart.Play

According to a police report filed with the Gwinnett County Police Department, Stephens allegedly slapped the girl four or five times, then told the mother, "See, I told you I would shut her up." He was charged with felony cruelty to children.

Stephens is now being held without bond at the Gwinnett County jail and is expected in court Sept. 8. His actions are a perfect example of how not to handle a similar situation.

"We need to realize that his is way out there at the far end, way beyond normal range," Dr. Redford Williams, a behavioral medicine specialist at Duke University Medical Center, told "It's never appropriate to hit somebody. That's just beyond the pale."

Stephens' neighbors told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was somewhat of a loner who didn't interact much with others and had few visitors.

Several bloggers commenting on the incident have said that although they disagree with Stephens' decision to slap the little girl, they've understood where his frustration came from.

Stephens, who, according to the police report, later apologized to the mother, is generally considered to have overreacted. But the sight -- and sound -- of a child carrying on even when he or she is old enough to know better is played out every day in stores, theaters, airports and malls.

Some restaurants have gone so far as to ban children from their dining rooms, a move that sparked the ire of parents and applause from childless diners.

There was also mixed reviews to an incident last summer when an American Eagle flight returned to the airport gate in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., after a toddler, who was autistic, would not stop throwing a tantrum. His mother said at the time that she had been trying to calm her son and that there was no reason to boot them from the plane.

Also last year, single mother Nikki Ramirez was cuffed and arrested after authorities saw an online video of the then-pregnant Florida mom spraying her crying 2-year-old with a car wash hose.

Ramirez, who was charged at the time with felony child abuse and then ordered to take court-appointed parenting classes, told ABC News that her daughter refused to calm down and listen to her.

"I wet her down thinking that would just calm her down," she said. "I just wanted to interrupt her for a second."

Disciplining Someone Else's Child

But disciplining someone else's child borders can provoke a furious response, and as the Stephens case illustrates can border on the criminal.

Williams noted that when people snap like Stephens did -- he called Stephens reaction a "very extreme level" of anger -- they are often shouldering heavy stress from some other burden, such as money or financial woes.

As director of Duke's Behavioral Medicine Research Center, Williams said he recommends that people ask themselves four questions before deciding to react to a potentially volatile situation.

Is this situation worth continued attention?

Is my anger appropriate?

Is there a way to modify the situation?

Is it worth it to take action?

Williams said he often uses the example of a screaming child in exercises to show patients that it really isn't a reason to get angry, unless the person is trapped with the child in a theater or airplane.

"If you really think about it, that's what 2-year-olds do," he said.

Stephens could have chosen to just walk away from the child in Wal-Mart, he said, or politely asked the mother to please quiet her child.

"People like this guy could benefit from learning there are more effective ways than what he did to change their and their kids' behavior," he said.

Psychologist Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, said the answer to quelling displays of unruly behavior is easier than most parents believe. "Of course," he said, "hitting is not" the appropriate response.

Most parents wait for the tantrum to happen and then get angry and threaten to leave the store, put the child in a time out or take away a privilege later.

"This is where most parents normally go wrong," he said.

The best way to avoid a tantrum in the first place, he said, is to get in the habit of taking a child to the store and immediately praising them for their good behavior, topped off with a quick hug or pat on the head.

In doing this, he said, "the chance of a tantrum is wildly reduced."

But in the heat of the moment with the child is screaming and hitting, the best thing to do is just calm the child by using a soothing, but matter-of-fact tone to tell them the behavior isn't acceptable and that the outing will be over soon.

"Don't be angry, don't be nasty," he said. "That'll make it worse."

Another fast way to make a bad situation worse? Trying to interfere when the child isn't yours.

While some may recommend aggravated bystanders calmly ask a struggling parent to please quiet their child, doing so, Kazdin said, will only turn a frustrated parent into a defensive one.

"There's no way you can do that," he said, "without offending the parent."