What Would You Do?: Mom Orders Bickering Kids to Walk Home

Would you come to the rescue of kids kicked to the curb by a frustrated mom?

May 12, 2010— -- "Give it back! Stop it! Mom, she took my doll!" The constant bickering between siblings is an all too familiar sound for many parents on car rides. But when a family is stuck in a car with kids fighting in the back seat, can tough love go too far?

A desperate mom repeatedly asks her screaming kids to be quiet and stop bickering, and when they don't listen, she pulls over to the side of the road and orders her kids to get out of the car.

"OK, that's it," she says. "Get out of the car and walk home! I am going. You can walk home!"

The girls protest: "You can't go...we don't know where that is," but the mom slams the door and drives away, seeming to abandon her children.

A similar scenario made headlines last April when a mom in Westchester County, New York, dropped off her tween daughters on the street and ordered them to walk three miles home. Madlyn Primoff, 45, was arrested on charges of child endangerment. Though the charges were dropped, parenting blogs were flooded with comments from people calling Primoff an awful mother. Many others were supportive, saying they understood the sentiment or were convinced it could actually be an effective form of discipline.

ABC's "What Would You Do?" wanted to see what ordinary people would do if they came upon kids kicked to the curb by a mother who passed her boiling point.

Watch "What Would You Do?" Friday at 9 p.m. ET

For our ABC News experiment, we put hidden cameras on a suburban street just a few miles from where Primoff made headlines. We hired actors to play the mom, Carla, and her children, Lauren, 7, and Brooke, 11. Then we sent our carful of maternal stress into town.

Takes Just Seconds for Man to Intervene

Our mom walked out of a slightly beat-up car, smoking a cigarette, and yelled at the girls to walk home. Within a few seconds, a man ran across the street to intervene.

"Excuse me...stop it...stop it. That is no way to talk to a child, including your own," said the man, William Disciullo, a father of two.

When the mom dismissed him and said, "Whatever, it's tough love," Disciullo did not let up.

"What do you mean, whatever!!?? That's not tough love...these are little children!!" he said. "Do you see how scared they are right now? How would you like it if an 8-foot-tall man yelled at you like that? It's the same thing, but it's even scarier for them."

Most Bystanders Are Outraged at Mom

When ABC News correspondent John Quinones let Disciullo in on the scenario, Disciullo explained why he swooped in.

"The two children were obviously terrified...so I ran over without thinking," he said. "I don't think any parent has limitless rights. She had well overstepped the bounds of what was decent...reasonable discipline."

Disciullo was far from the only passerby who was outraged. One woman told our mom to "cool it" and said she was calling the police. "You're dumping two children on the sidewalk...what's your problem?" she asked.

Peter Lubeck, a man who saw the scenario unfold, asked the girls if that was their mom.

"Just leave my kids alone," our mom responded. "It's none of your business, sir!"

"It is now," Lubeck said, asking the girls how far their home was.

"That's child endangerment," he told the mom. "You want to lose your kids?"

Psychology of People's Reactions

Jennifer Jones, a psychologist and author of the book "The Three P's of Parenting," watched our social experiment from a control vehicle nearby, and said people are often hesitant to interfere with others' parenting practices.

"In society now, there are taboos for people about interfering with someone's parenting, but if they feel that it is violent enough or aggressive enough, that it crosses a certain line, then they have a social permission, then they can get involved," said Jones.

If bystanders can connect at all to the situation, Jones said their reaction will be stronger.

"A lot of what drives what we do with our kids and what we interpret when we see other parents, is how we were raised...What did our parents do? Did they leave us at a critical moment?" Jones said. "Did our mom not show up one afternoon unexpectedly? Did we get left on the school bus one day? All these little things kind of register in our brain."

'I Think You Made a Big Mistake'

Sometimes our actress mom drove off before someone stopped her, but our abandoned child actors drew plenty of sympathy.

A concerned passerby, Adelle Rothman, stopped when she saw Brooke and Lauren. Brooke asked Rothman if she could call the girls' mom on a cell phone.

"Your two children are here and they are scared to death," Rothman told our mom-actor, Carla. "I don't know what you think you are doing."

"I told them to walk home," Carla said.

"Well, it doesn't matter, they are sitting here scared to death," Rothman said. "I think you made a big mistake."

Rothman reminded Carla of the Westchester incident that we used as a basis for our scenario.

"This is very reminiscent of what happened in Westchester, if you remember that. She told them to walk home too," Rothman said.

Rothman later said that the mom had to teach kids a lesson some other way.

A Twist In Our Experiment: Rough to Refined

As a twist in our experiment, we decided to see if bystanders' reactions would be different depending on the mother's perceived social status.

"She's smoking in the car with kids. I think I had a little bit of prejudice there," said Laura Wendle.

We gave the family in crisis a slightly different appearance, dressing them in nicer clothes and trading their scratched sedan with a missing hubcap for a luxury SUV.

Other than that, the scenario remained unchanged. This time, when people on the street saw the mom abandon her kids, the reaction was completely different.

Find out what happens on "What Would You Do?" Friday, May 14, at 9 p.m. ET.