12/13/2013 10:27 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

When Do You Mind Your Own Business, and When Do You Butt In?

It isn't uncommon to see parents misbehaving in front of their kids. Sometimes I'm tempted to butt in. Isn't everyone?

Here are a couple of instances where I stayed out of it. The first one isn't keeping me up at night. The second one still haunts me, and it's been weeks.

On a stop at a Wendy's, a little boy attempted to get his mother's attention. He'd squished a hamburger wrapper into what looked like a miniature baseball, and he was lobbing it at his mother. Over and over he tossed it at her face.

She didn't look up. Not once. She growled at him a few times, but she never made eye contact with him -- at least not while we were there.

So I indulged one of my favorite hobbies. I watched our daughter, Katie, taking this in. She ached for the little boy, you could just tell.

When I was growing up I had to compete with seven brothers and sisters for the attention of my parents. No big, I suddenly realize. Because not once did I have to compete with a phone.

I always want to ask, "Why is that little screen more important than your kid?" I always resist. Maybe the parent is corresponding about something that, while not more important than the kid, is certainly more urgent -- at the moment, anyway. I'm not at my best all the time, after all. What do I know about this family? I have but a glimpse of the tiniest slice of that life, and I'll only add to the yuck by casting judgment.

Is that wisdom, or rationalizing?

Here's the other situation I wonder about. You know those piles of rugs you see at the hardware store? They're at the perfect height for taking a load off while hubby browses.

A little girl did just that in the checkout line next to the one we were in. Suddenly her dad yanked her off the pile with so much force it took my breath away. Now they were on the other side of the candy racks that separated that checkout from ours, and I wondered what was happening.

Sure enough, when the little girl appeared again she was crying her eyes out. She looked up at me with so much despair I wanted to scoop her up and away, maybe even adopt her. I wanted to tell her what someone else had said to a child in a similar situation: "Things will get better, honey." At the very least I wanted to give her a hug -- and some of the candy we were going to stash in Katie's next care package.

Instead I did nothing.

There were two reasons. I didn't know if things would get better. And to insert myself at all might make things worse. Maybe the dad would've kept his composure with me, maybe not. But I felt sure he'd take it out on her. He'd do the whole "I'll give you something to cry about" thing.

Darrell was surprised I hadn't spoken up anyway in this case, because I've done it before. He was ready to back me up if the dad transferred his anger to me.

We watched the family walk to their car. Darrell whispered the same thing I noticed. Dad carried a couple of bags as he continued to yell at his kid. Mom carried a bag -- and a great big heavy bucket of something. The bucket seemed weightless, now that I think about it, compared with what the heartbroken little girl was stuck with.

I doubt if there's a right answer in situations like this. Doing nothing appears to have been the wrong one, though -- based on how much the look on that little girl's face still haunts me.

What about you? What would you have done, if anything?