How to Mess Up Your Kid, or, Is There a Korean Kids Help Phone?

“How was your dinner?” the shop lady asked me.

I sputtered, in Korean, “The food was good, but this crazy… crazy… this crazy b-i-t-c-h messed up my whole evening. You know, if this were Canada, I’d call the cops. And the cops would come, and it wouldn’t be easy for her. She would have a problem.” Because, obviously, the woman did have a problem.

I hate the B-word. I use it very rarely. (And even less so in Korean, though I don’t know a good insulting but less-extreme word I could have used instead.) To understand why I went ahead and said what I did, though, you need to know what happened just before that.

Which was that the guy at the next table turned to her and shouted something like, “What the hell are you doing? And you hit my girlfriend, too!” And then the guy stormed out with his girlfriend, pausing only as long as it took to pay. And the woman’s son sat there, sopping wet and crying and crying, while the woman’s friend looked around nervously, obviously embarrassed.

Because just before that, the woman threw a glass of water onto her kid. I don’t mean she spilled it: I mean she picked it up and shouted at him and threw the water onto him like one might do a misbehaving dog, if one were inclined to kick dogs and such.

Why did she do that?

Well, before this, she’d been trying to get the kid to eat some kimchi dumplings, because that was what she felt like eating. She’d ordered one set of dumplings, and the kid was begging for something else, because, he said, he hated kimchi dumplings. Rather than spend the two bucks it would cost to get the kid something he wanted to eat, the woman started shouting at him. Heedless of the fact she was disrupting everyone else’s meal, heedless of the fact that it’s quite normal for kids to be picky eaters, and totally ignoring her friend’s constant insistences: “He can eat something at home, it’s okay, it’s not a big deal…”

Yes, tonight I saw a woman throw a full glass of water onto her kid — and some girl sitting nearby, to boot — because he didn’t want to eat the food she’d chosen. But of course, she waited to throw water onto him until after she’d slapped him in the face and shoulders a few times.

Now, before you rush to her defense: I know kids can be stressful. I know it’s possible to snap at a kid, even when you don’t mean to; when you’re tired, say, or you think the kid is being a brat. I once snapped at my nephew for throwing stuff at me while I was sleeping.

Mind you, I waited a long time, and neither of his parents did anything to stop him. They just freaked out when I shouted, “Hey!” at him the Nth time something hit me in the head. But still, shouting at a kid too little to know better isn’t really cool. If I weren’t exhausted, I might have roared and chased him around the room or something. In a fun, playful way, I mean, like my poor late Uncle Cookie Monster (briefly mentioned here) used to do. (In his parents’ defense, they were tired too. Being around me during holidays is tiring.)

But you know, there’s yelling “Hey!” in annoyance, and then there’s child abuse, and the latter is a whole ‘nother world. And I think throwing a glass of water on a kid while shouting at him in the middle of a public place, that’s abuse, plain and simple. Sure, she didn’t beat him (to bruising, anyway), but she humiliated him in a public place for behaviour that is absolutely normal in an adult. I mean, when a group of grown-ups are choosing dinner, if one of them doesn’t like some dish on the list and states the fact, can  the other grown-ups who had their heart set on it scream at him and throw water into his face? Can they slap him across the table?

I know, I know: adults in Korea are probably slightly less likely (than Westerners) to say, “Oh, I don’t want to eat that.” They’ll do it if the food really turns them off, but more often, they’ll try to be flexible. Maybe this woman’s frustration was of that sort — the utter exhaustion of being with a kid who is therefore totally lacking in all the self-control of adults, including the self-control to force himself to eat things he hates. (Though, ironically, she was just as lacking in self-control as he was, and at her age, she has no excuse.)

Maybe the woman had a bad day. Yeah, well, this kid was in the market district with his mom and her friend, so I can’t really imagine that he had such a hot day, either: marching around with your mom and her homely middle-aged friend is no eight-year-old boy’s idea of a good time. Maybe he’d misbehaved a few times that day; or maybe him being a normal kid — bored out of his skull, and wanting to eat what he likes — was misconstrued as him being a little misbehaving bastard.

Okay, maybe the woman never wanted a kid. Well, sure… but it’s not like he vindictively got born, is it? If she’s unhappy, he’s not the one to blame, and he’s not the one to take it out on. We don’t have kids so that we can take our frustrations and stresses out on them, after all. If we did, they wouldn’t be called children, they would be called punching bags. Unfortunately, some people’s children are punching bags.

On the subject of eating what’s put in front of you, well, I can understand this kid’s situation. All I can say is that some parents — my mother included — seem to have a constitutional incapacity to understand that different people have different food aversions, and that children are no different. My mother took years to finally accept that mashed potatoes make me throw up. (Yes, they still do. I feel violently sick whenever I eat mashed potatoes. And no, you cannot cure me of this with your special secret grandma’s mashed potatoes recipe. It’s a condition for life.) Years and years of fights at the table, it took, before she started giving them to me baked or boiled or roasted. I think there was this element of, “You will eat it, and you will like it!” As if making me eat it might result in my developing a taste for it. (And, yeah, that’s important too, though too much eagerness seems a waste of time and energy, in retrospect.)

Even as an adult, I’ve been in similar situations, where I was somewhere and a food I couldn’t eat was ordered. Specifically in Korea, of course. In one case, I remember not really knowing why I couldn’t eat it, and being unable to express it, and feeling trapped by the social expectation that I would eat this stuff. (Spicy food, ordered without asking around. Infected gum, wisdom tooth, terrible pain. ‘Nuff said.)

When I started writing this post, I thought maybe I’d reach the beginning of the story — when there’s that blankness preceding the moment where the woman and her friend and her eight-year-old son walked into the restaurant and I had no idea what they were doing before, how he’d behaved, how they’d treated him all day. I thought I might reach a place where I would say, “No, you don’t know the whole situation, you don’t know the whole picture. You can’t judge.”

But that’s a load of bullshit. There are things that just can’t be justified by the big picture. Maybe the woman is struggling with how her life turned out, how she’s getting older, living her life in training pants and a baseball cap, stuck hauling a kid around. That’s no bloody excuse. I can’t excuse it.

In my heart, I have a fantasy that I went to pay, made a comment about her, then got myself a cup of water, nice and full, and threw it on her. Let her pick on someone her own size. I have that fantasy, but doing it would probably just get the kid beaten when they got home. The thing is, I’m not sure I could dump water on a person in public. It’s so nasty.

So what I really regret not doing is exactly the thing nobody else did: talking to the kid. I wish I could have squatted down beside him, and said, “Kid, listen. What she did? She’s wrong to do it. She’s messed up. Someday she won’t be able to hurt you this way. But for now, do you have an aunt? Call your aunt. Ask for help. Call your uncle. Tell your teacher.” But I don’t know if that would help.

I remember Kids Help Phone, in Canada, when I was growing up. It was a 1-800 hotline where kids could call for help when they were desperate: when they were being abused, when their teachers were hurting them, when they were scared or a parent had a drug problem, when they were thinking of suicide or running away. And hell, this was in a time when most teachers wouldn’t dare hit kids: in Korea, that era still hasn’t arrived, not according to the stories I’m told by kids who graduated a few years ago.

But is there anything like Kids Help Phone in Korea? That is, an untraced, free hotline for desperate kids in bad situations, in need of impartial feedback from an outsider? I really doubt it. In fact, I wonder about whether (or how many) suicide hotlines for, say, young adults even exist. They’re needed, that’s for sure, because, well, as Metropolitician writes:

We should think about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD country, that suicide is the fourth major cause of death for Koreans, but the leading cause of death for people in their 20’s and 30’s [and #4 overall], and that it’s quite common to hear of people who have killed themselves, or if you are a teacher, you will likely come to know a student who takes that route.

In that post, Metropolitician also notes that there are suicide websites… well, you know, there’s a rule about the Internet — anything you can imagine is there. But there are actually quite a number of them, in the Korean Internet. To fight that, you need a concerted effort.

And the effort needs to take place despite the fact that society in general is going to remain largely unwilling to invade the private space and intervene on behalf of kids like the one I saw being treated like garbage. Because, really, if what that woman did to that boy is part of a long-standing pattern, I suspect (strongly) that he has a much better chance of being messed up for life. Or of ending his life, someday. I’m not saying this happens in every Korean household, but in the ones where it does, nobody intervenes. (And the kind of empathy deficit that the Joshing Gnome describes here seems not to be the sort of thing that raises eyebrows… it seems to take a lot to raise eyebrows here, is what I’m saying.)

Hmm. Kids Help Phone, Korea. Teen Help Phone. Suicide Hotlines. Something to think about. If there are some, maybe more are needed? Or better exposure? Anyone know more about this? How widely are they advertised? Does anything like this exist for children here?

14 thoughts on “How to Mess Up Your Kid, or, Is There a Korean Kids Help Phone?

  1. Yeah. Disturbing was a good word for it. Part of the reason I didn’t try talk to the kid was just the degree of shock I was in. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen anyone do something so profoundly nasty to someone quite so vulnerable.

    I should reiterate that this is not the norm in Korea, as far as I know. I’m pretty sure that most Koreans (at least, most Koreans of the age to be parenting kids that small) would think of this woman’s behaviour as outright crazy too.

  2. I remember one time when I was taking the bus in Saskatoon. One woman was just talking trash to her son/charge and slapped him. When she got up to leave, I yelled, “Hey lady, quit hitting your kid in the face”, and shamed her in front of the whole bus.
    It probably wasn’t very effective, but I felt so disturbed and helpless and it was the only thing I could think of to do.

  3. Once I was eating with a friend when we saw a guy slap his wife across the face — older guy, slapped her hard enough that the whole restaurant fell silent at the sound. And yet I’ve heard time and again not to get involved.

    the yangpa said it best in his fake news story: New “Let’s Keep Domestic Violence Domestic!” Campaign (sponsored by the ministry of gender equality)

  4. Alexis,

    Well, I still think shaming is better than doing nothing… One might just trip the, “Oh my God what a jerk I’m being” switch, and it also signals to the KID that this behaviour isn’t okay to others. (Which at least gives the kid something to cling to in the long wait until escape is possible.)

    I’d imagine throwing water on your kid and speaking abusively *was* considered normal in lots of societies, if you go back far enough. I sincerely doubt that societies in which public mutilation and torture was normal encouraged much empathy in the area of parenting. Sadly, I suspect in fact this kid’s experience is closer to the historical norm for the human species in general. Until, perhaps, more recently than I care to imagine.


    Oh, the Yangpa. You see, I’ve heard “Don’t get involved” and I suppose I’ve taken it to heart. But this engenders resentment on my part, because, “Don’t get involved,” really translates — to someone like me, from my background, upbringing, and culture — into, “Don’t give a crap about other human beings, especially vulnerable ones who actually need help.” It’s another way of saying, “Abandon empathy and stop thinking of the human beings around you as people,” which is really, really hard to do. (For you, I imagine, as it is for me.) I guess that just goes to show you how effective training to the opposite effect can be.

    The wife who’s with an abusive husband, well, social norms or not, she could at least try to leave. The eight-year-old boy with an abusive parent is someone whose situation simply cannot get sorted out without some kind of intervention.

    (Problem is, all the forms of intervention we have in the West are at different degrees of screwed up. But at least someone to call would be good, for these kids.)

  5. I’m not sure I would have had the stuff to do it either…but I really wish you had gotten that glass of water and given her a taste. Telling her she wasn’t fit to be a mother would have been a nice touch as well.

  6. Slapping someone in the face the wrong way can do some pretty serious damage, sometimes permanently. I’m not sure where you draw the line as far as “beating” goes, but hitting in the face is on the wrong side of it as far as I’m concerned.

    (Fortunately for the BDSM folk for whom that’s their kink, there are ways of doing it safely — but somehow I don’t think that “safe face-slapping” was paramount in the mind of the mother.)

    Does Korea have anything like Child Protective Services?

  7. Pohang,

    Yeah, I only wish my Korean was good enough to get the message, “You’re not fit to be a mother to child!” across.


    Huh, I didn’t know that. (That a slap could cause permanent damage.)

    As for CPS in Korea, I sort of answered that question in part a while back, when I asked it myself… but from what I gather, the concept of CPS is still very new and controversial here. (And there is a general resistance to intervention in terms of other domestic problems, too. It’s relatively rare for cops to respond to a domestic violence call, for example.)

    The reticence to apply intervention means that, in systems where it ought first to be taking root — schools and hospitals — it isn’t doing so. Where North American teachers are supposed to be catching signs of abuse in the home among their students, in Korea violence against students isn’t uncommon.

    (Even without the constant videos leaking onto the net of grown men beating teenaged boys and girls in schools, I have heard more than enough frank discussions of teacher violence among students, who claims there’s always at least one violent teacher in each school, and often more than one, to feel secure in saying this.)

    And in hospitals, I don’t think there’s been a systematic effort to inform young doctors of the necessity to launch intervention. (Unsurprising, since the doctor subculture is one of the most conservative in the country.) I’ll put it this way: a woman can starve her newborn so badly that it stops growing — by, say, feeding it only vitamin drinks for the first month of its life — and when she visits the doctor to find out why baby has stopped growing and the truth comes out, she is admonished and sent home with the baby. I think the obvious response — “So then you called CPS, right?” — just isn’t obvious here yet, not even to people utterly horrified by the situation.

    I do hope CPS is developing, but given the attitude of the establishment towards the protection of children, I think it’s going to take a long time.

    (Yes, the President did scold the cops for not trying to catch the attempted kidnapper; but the sad fact is I’ve seen two or three cases of the President of Korea (or some other high-level politician) having to scold cops for ignoring an attempted kidnapping, a rape, or a murder of a kid. And by the establishment, I mean all those cops who’d rather not bother to act when a crime like this is reported. I’m sure some cops are eager to do their jobs, but there must be a lot who aren’t, given the frequency of governmental scoldings and the number of times one hears about a case where a victim is either criticized by the police or ignored.

    So, anyway, for Korea to have a truly functional CPS is going to take time. I’m dubious about the idea suggested in that article I linked above, by the way: I don’t see how a Korean culture-rooted form of CPS is possible given that Korean culture is pretty much going through the same fragmentative process Western culture did. (That is, rapid urbanization.) Such transformations leave a society without cultural solutions to its problems, and while there are problems with CPS in the West, in some ways, I’m not sure it’s plausible to think of some other culturally different way of doing it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that CPS in New York isn’t really Western, culturally, either; it’s postmodern, and more a feature of nuclear families in large cities. Korean culture has solutions for these problems in a village setting (maybe), or in an extended family setting (probably) but Koreans have just been railroaded through the social change we Westerners went through over several hundred years, and they mostly went through it in half a decade century. What I’m saying, and my look at gerontological issues here a while back seems to confirm this, is that it’s very difficult to a society to adapt when social and technological change outpaces cultural change to such a great degree. (Cultures, like the seasons, change [relatively] slowly no matter how you push to speed up the process.)

  8. I wonder how much cultural expectations of power dynamics have to do with lack of intervention in domestic abuse? Afaik it seems to have been related in the States, in that you saw more awareness, prevention of, and action on abuse here after the womens’ movement. Obviously men aren’t the only abusers as illustrated by your story, but there seems to be something about a culture of openness and a belief (even if unsupported or poorly supported by government) in individual human rights (I’m not going Libertarian here, and I’m on very little sleep so I didn’t phrase it well–but you know I’m a pinko, hehe). Thing is Korea’s in a particularly sticky situation I suspect because not only is there all the mess that comes with rapid industrialization and societal change associated with it, but also right now globalization and overreach corporate power have made those stresses worse, even in “developed” countries like the US (I’m not going on a rant about the US, don’t worry). And power on a societal scale affects folks’ internal sense of what actions are acceptable for those in power, hence why folks raised in authoritarian homes who internalized those expectations may perhaps vote for governments who act in authoritarian ways, and perhaps also the linkage between social and religious conservativism in the US.
    Heck, there has to be a belief on behalf of folks being abused that it was abuse for progress to be made. Otherwise one just blames oneself and thinks of oneself as unworthy and a terrible person, particularly if one respects or one is taught to respect one’s abuser.

    If people unquestioningly accept something as right, they shift the responsibility for say the abuse onto themselves–blaming the victim. And those who have been abused may perpetuate the violence as a learned behavior.

    Now, I’m not saying this lady isn’t doing something totally awful, or that it is acceptable in Korean society, but perhaps some folks were more shocked because something which is supposed to remain silent, in the private domain, entered the public domain?

    A lot of abuse occurs in private or semi-private, and where privacy as some Westerners may think of it may be scarce (as in Korea as it was), perhaps public consensus functioned as privacy.

    Hmm, also I remember reading something about the invention of childhood in Western and Westernized cultures in the nineteenth century concurrent with industrialization, before that kids were just small adults. Perhaps that is a default view in many human societies which Western expectations are affecting? I don’t know? I mean, I’m not in favor of cultural imperialism, but nobody should be hitting their kid….

    Anyway. Sorry so rambling.

    Interesting link on the empathy thing. I have a teacher friend who will want to see that…

  9. Alex,

    Sorry, I didn’t see your comment — it was in moderation briefly. Yes, that article cheered me up, too; it’s always good to see people working for positive change. Thanks!


    No, I hear you. A lot of what you say makes sense. I’m also curious about the construction of childhood in Korean culture. I suspect it was quite interestingly different 100 years ago, and need to read more about it.

    As for cultural imperialism… well, I stopped disclaiming that when I noticed how many Koreans actually agree with me on a lot of issues. (For example, a number of young Koreans I know are strongly disgusted by the violence in schools. They’re not quite opposed in the same way I am, as in, angrily and disgusted, but they don’t think it’s necessary, constructive, or cool.)

    But I also don’t try to push our solutions onto Korea. I’m well aware of how nonfunctional some of our systematic solutions are. It’s just that I think the solutions that have been developed in societies in the past are worth looking at in Korea, if only to discard those that didn’t work, and try exploit elements of those that have enjoyed more success.

    (In other words, I don’t think perfectly good insights gleaned from the same struggle with the same issues in Western countries should be dismissed because they emerged from different cultures.

    Not that you’re saying that, but it is an approach people run into occasionally here. I did just this morning, or thought I did.

    Rambling’s okay. You raised some interesting points!

  10. (In other words, I don’t think perfectly good insights gleaned from the same struggle with the same issues in Western countries should be dismissed because they emerged from different cultures.

    Good point….although perhaps this is a case where anthropological psychologists could make considerable hay.

    It may be that solutions which worked at least partially for other societies may serve to ameliorate things, but a culturally specific solution may be more successful in the long run, especially in terms of PR. Although it depends what generation is your target audience if you create say a help line and then advertise it. If your audience is kids or young parents, then a western ambiance may be ok. If its older folks or bystander parents or elders, then a more traditional tack is more likely to work, perhaps adapting any remnant of a solution historical study of Korean culture might offer.

    Btw, in that other post, you can call me Val instead of melopoiea.

  11. Val,

    Yeah, but then again, help lines are a generational thing for us, too: my parents’ generation would never have called a stranger in despair. In fact, I argued to my class that modern, medical psychiatry is as alien to Western culture as it is to Korean: the only difference is, we got used to it.

    That’s a slight exaggeration, of course: we’ve long had rich people throwing money at authority figures (confessors) and discussing their dirty laundry. But your average Westerner in 1950 was about as accepting of pscychiatry as your average Korean was a few years ago, or maybe is today.

    Personally, I’m somewhat skeptical of mainstream anthropology, for a lot of the same reasons I’m skeptical about a lot of what constitutes literary criticism these days: it’s very politicized, very much in defiance of anything the scientific study of human nature has to offer, and very disconnected from the thing it purports to study.

    But I will agree that crisis hotlines are likelier to work for younger people than for older ones.

    The problem, I think, is that the solutions of traditional Korean culture — which are predominantly community solutions, I suspect, designed for village life — simply don’t map onto the urban world where most Koreans live now.

    (And in fact, I think this too is something Westerners experienced, just more slowly; I think, though, that means we just wallowed in the non-address of these issues for longer until systems started getting designed to take care of those issues because older cultural solutions had become utterly unviable, and the makeshift handling of them by “concerned [read: moralistic] individuals” was more often cruel and unconscionable than helpful.

    (In other words, I’m back at the idea that intervention systems like crisis hotlines are alien to us too — but native to the modern world as a structure.)

    The idea of “western ambiance” is interesting, by the way. I could actually see “western ambiance” being a positive selling point on one level. When some of my Taiwanese exchange students asked why, increasingly, Korean films use English in their titles — simply writing English words in Hangeul, and that’s the Korean-language title — a Korean marketing major pointed out that using English lends a kind of sophistication and appeal to films and products.

    But of course, there will be others who resent it and backlash against it, because they prefer to be “pure Koreans” — that is, people whose culture is saturated with Chinese and Japanese colonial influence, rather than American influence.

    What I find interesting is a growing trend towards looking at other places. Students who come back in the fall with stories of life in Barcelona or Venice, speaking Portuguese or German, and so on. I think the diversification of foreign points of comparison can only do good.

    Er, now I’m rambling!

    But I do think it can do good because there’ll be less grounds for a kind of knee-jerk reaction to reject anything perceived as “foreign” when one observes positive alternatives or possibilities that are not the reviled hegemon (America), the ex-conqueror (Japan), or China. Maybe young people will see in European labour laws something better than they have here; maybe they’ll see, in Latin American hybridity, a solution to the problem of ethnonationalism clashing with international marriages here. Surely perceiving the world as a world is better than perceiving it only in terms of centers, with the peripheries shadowed into obscurity? The peripheries are, in some ways, the most interesting parts. :)

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