Tanya Enberg: Unexpected Mother

Apr
24
2014

Is It Ever Okay To Discipline Someone Else's Child?

Where The Heck Are That Kid’s Parents?

In the toddler jungle, simple moments can quite quickly turn into complex and confusing situations. Within this vast, untamed wilderness teeming with half-pints, the rules are not always clear. 

When it comes to dealing with other people’s kids, it is delicate terrain, to say the least.

If someone else’s child is behaving badly, do you intervene or let it pass and hope their caretakers will jump into action? 

Does your reaction depend upon whether the child in question is negatively targeting your own beloved offspring?

At some point, it's going to happen. 

Anywhere children congregate, you are guaranteed to meet an assortment of temperaments. You have the pushy kid and the aggressor, the screamer and the loudmouth. You have the whiny kid, the cranky one, and the "mine! mine! mine!" child who constantly paws away at any toy somebody else has taken interest in. You have the cool kids, too, but because they aren’t overly pushy, aggressive, loud, whiny, cranky, or unwilling to share, they don’t often ruffle feathers. 

Recently, a girlfriend of mine wrote to say she’d had a run in with her friend’s four-year-old daughter. 

“My friend’s kid squirted me with the garden hose,” she wrote.

“I squirted her back and it all kicked off a bit. Touchy subject.” 

Indeed it is. 

I immediately thought of the saying, "What’s good for the goose is good for the gander." But did my friend go too far? 

Perhaps she did. Even though it was just a harmless spritz of water, it scared the little girl and she started screaming and crying.

“I hoped to achieve a playful understanding of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of being sprayed with a hose,” explained my friend.

While the girl’s father was upset by the incident, her mother wasn’t fazed. Rather she felt that if the child dishes it out, she must to learn to take it, too. Neither parent explained to the girl why she shouldn't go around blasting people with water. 

In the end, my friend apologized to the girl.

“Within a few minutes she was running around holding my hand as we played chase with her mom. In the future I plan to just walk away from the child when her behaviour is getting out of hand.”

While taking the high road might’ve been a better approach, certainly many of us can understand the urge to give the misbehaving child a taste of her own medicine. 

Recently at the playground a boy of about two approached my son, who is the same age, and began shoving him. 

“Hey, gentle, gentle, gentle!” I said, intervening only after realizing the kid’s dad was just going to stand there staring blankly. I shot the kid "the look," which is stern and unapologetically no-nonsense. 

Make no mistake, if my child was being aggressive, I would be correcting his behaviour immediately. I will protect my child and yours. 

Another time a mouthy kid yelled out that my son couldn’t use the swing because he was a baby. I cocked my eyebrow questioningly at him and waited for his parents to interject, perhaps offer up a lesson in manners, but they said nothing. So, I did. I told the rude urchin that my child could use whatever equipment he wanted—we were in a public park, after all. 

His parents stared dumbfounded. I shot them a quizzical look and shook my head before walking away. 

Of course, many new parents start off expecting that our adult peers will be actively teaching their offspring the value of being kind and polite only to learn that behind many poorly behaved children stand poorly behaved parents. 

Some folks allow their youngsters to roam around free of discipline and rules, but why should others have to pay for such laissez-faire parenting styles? 

You shouldn’t. And sometimes that means you need to be ballsy. 

According to the website parents.com, there are times when stepping in is essential.

“When it comes to disciplining someone else's child, you don't want to offend the kid's parents, but if his behaviour is dangerous or harmful you can't simply ignore it either,” they advise. 

The site offers tips about how to handle everything from toy stealing and bad play dates to biting and terrible table manners. 

“Explain your expectations: A child isn't likely to obey boundaries unless you set them,” they say.  

Meanwhile, an article in salon.comentitled "Hell is Other People’s Children," is a delightful read. 

In her piece, writer Anna Lefler recalls taking her children to a busy aquarium in Long Beach. 

“We observed most every manner of ocean-dwelling creature, from filmy baby jellyfish to majestic sea turtles to sassy dolphins.

The variety of species was stunning, yet these life forms shared a striking commonality: In front of every one of their enclosures stood a child tapping, banging or slapping the glass. 

Within moments of witnessing this, my children tilted forward in their stroller seats and reached out with four little hands, straining to take their rightful shot at the nearest fish tank. ‘No, no,’ I said and backed the stroller away from the display. I pointed to the brass plaque above the viewing window that read ‘Please Don’t Tap the Glass.’ See that? It’s against the rules to hit the glass. Besides, the fish don’t like it.

My children’s heads swivelled in unison as their eyes traveled from my finger to the plaque to the boy standing in front of the lobster tank and pummelling the glass with both fists. Every few hits, he would change things up and deliver a series of savage kicks to the wall beneath the window. On the other side of the glass, an enormous lobster swayed in the tank’s artificial current and returned the child’s gaze. Then the lobster looked over at me in that way that only a lobster can, and I knew we were thinking the same thing: Where the hell were this kid’s parents?”

I loved this story, as it is something many of us are forced to ask at times—where the hell are that kid’s parents? 

Oftentimes they are standing right in front of us doing absolutely nothing. Maybe they are exhausted and have tuned out or they’ve simply decided to take the path of least resistance (it is much easier not to confront a child than to intervene and face a potential public tantrum, after all) but when you have kids, that is the job

You correct, you teach, you guide, you praise, you love, you get involved. You parent. Heck, without that, what else is the point of us being there?

Read more blogs by Tanya Enberg: The Stroller Wars: Where Manners Are Being Left at the DoorWhen it Comes to Our Kids, Do We Practice What We Preach? and Once Upon A Time, I Was Just Me: Before Baby, Who Were You?