When someone else’s kids are acting up, do you step in to discipline?
The African adage, it takes a village to raise a kid, is true. But does that village include random people at say, the supermarket who feel free to discipline and correct a child they don’t know?
I had to ask myself that question when, riding the bus to the mall, we passengers were subjected to a display of terrible behaviour from a five-year-old, who was screaming at his mother, demanding candy, and on receiving it, threw it on the floor. The mom picked it up; her son demanded more and she gave it to him!
I bit my tongue hard: although I wanted to tell the child off (and the mother for being such a pushover), it was not my place to do so.
Why? I have no idea how the parent will react – she might get offended, taking my interference as an affront to her child or her parenting skills, and might have freaked out on me. As well, the child needs help and support – my correcting him won’t give him the skills he needs to deal with his frustration.
Unless they are actively harming someone or themselves, the parent is the one who is responsible for correcting their behaviour.
I will however, correct a child, if the child’s parent is not around. A trick I will use then, is to try connecting first with the child emotionally, then firmly make it clear the behaviour is not acceptable.
If your child was throwing sand or grabbing toys, you wouldn’t hesitate to stop her. Disciplining someone else’s kid, however, is tricky territory. It takes judgment and tact. But I’m certainly prepared to help other people’s kids control their own behaviour, particularly if they might otherwise cause harm or damage property. While I’d hope for the parents to deal with the situation, they’re not always present – or inclined – to step in.
It’s not about harsh punishment, or even necessarily scolding. Often, kids just need a distraction in order to stop stomping on the flowerbeds. Alternatively, I might explain the consequences: “My daughter won’t want to play with you if she’s getting sand in her eyes.” I could take the focus off the behaviour: “I’m going to put this vase away for now because it’s breakable,” or, “In this house, we use the couch only for sitting.”
Being non-confrontational means I’m not in an unpleasant showdown with someone else’s kid. It also avoids putting the other parent on the defensive. As we all know, it can feel like an indictment when someone else corrects our child. When another adult told my daughter where she should have placed her cutlery after finishing her meal, I felt the knife-sharp accusation of shoddy parental table-manner tutelage cutting through me.
If the child’s behaviour is merely obnoxious but not harmful, I’m inclined to let it go. It’s none of my business if your kid doesn’t say please, or screams “Fat bum! Fat bum!” in an endless loop. But if their misbehaviour can have an impact on others, it’s better to preempt any problems.
As far as I am concerned, I would only discipline other people’s children when their parent isn’t present. Even though it may be frustrating to observe what you perceive to be an out-of-control child being supervised by an ineffective or uninvolved parent, hold your tongue. Imagine if someone tried to discipline your child. You’d likely feel that person had overstepped boundaries, and in the process demeaned you and your ability to handle the situation in a competent manner, or as you see fit. Instead of disciplining the child, approach the parent in a supportive manner. Acknowledge her frustration and share a story in which you experienced the same behaviour. On the other hand, if there’s no parent present and the child’s behaviour is impacting you or your child, then intervene as calmly and sensitively as possible.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Nov/Dec 2016.