Mommie Dearest: 3 Things To Ask Yourself Before You Even Think Of Disciplining Someone Else’s Child

When it comes to disciplining your children, there’s no end to the opinions you’ll receive. Be strict! Be gentle! Give them free reign! Allow them to fail! Time outs! No time outs! Punishment! Allow them to experience natural consequences! It’s enough to make any parent’s head spin. But what happens when somebody goes beyond offering discipline advice and goes straight to disciplining your child themselves?

Over on xoJane, Sydney Scott took on the unpopular opinion, “I Think It’s OK To Discipline A Stranger’s Child,” writing:

 Being reprimanded by strangers isn’t anything new to me. … The rule was that as long as an adult wasn’t creepy or trying to kidnap you, they were an authority figure, and their word was law. So, it’s kind of weird for me to encounter parents who don’t want anyone else ever disciplining their child.

I get where Scott is coming from. She brings up the “It Takes a Village” mindset as part of her argument, and you’re not going to find a bigger proponent of that mindset than me. Having an only child, my husband and I intentionally made the decision to build up a solid community made up of other families with children of all ages, as well as child-free adults But there is a big difference between intentional villages that support each other in a variety of ways and strangers coming up to my child and disciplining him out of the blue.

A few years ago, I had a budding friendship sour over a boundary issue just like this. I was out to lunch with two adult acquaintances and my then two-year-old son. We were at a local family-friendly restaurant, and my son was getting a bit squirmy while waiting for his food. He wasn’t being loud, nor was he bothering any of the other patrons. He did, however,  at one point flop the top half of his body dramatically down on the table, letting us know just how hungry he was. Before I could reach into my bag for a snack to tide him over, one of the other adults we were with reached over, picked him up and physically put him back in a seated position, while lecturing him on not placing his head on the table.

Um, nope. You do not have the right to go and touch my son like that and and then chastise him. Feel free to dish out all the snark and hatred to me that you want about my son’s hair touching the table, but do not cross the line and physically remove him. We weren’t super close friends — which I’ll admit would be a different situation, plus I can’t imagine a close friend behaving in that way — and our friendship was never quite the same after that.

I get being annoyed at children out in public who are misbehaving while their parents are ignoring them. But do you know who’s at fault there? The parents. Instead of going up to the kids and slapping down some punishments, why not focus your ire at the ones who should be handling the situation in the first place?

I feel like if you’re ever going to discipline someone else’s kid, you should take the following into consideration:

1. Is this a matter of safety? If a child is about to run into traffic, pet a dog that bites, or others, or fall into a barrel of knives, yes, please — say something! If it seems like nobody else is about to witness whatever awful tragedy that is seconds away from occurring then I hope you step in and say/do something. But then again, I would think matters of safety would be less about a discipline situation and chastisement, and more about, you know, being safe.

2. Is there a parent/guardian around? This is where it starts to get sticky. If there is an observant parent or guardian around, actively engaged with the child, why not start there? A simple “I’m not sure if you realize it or not, but your child is [fill in the odious behavior here]” is usually a great way to alert a parent to whatever it is you feel is inappropriate. Sure, the parent can choose not to do something about it, and then you can feel free to leave, complain to a manager (if in a store or restaurant), or get all shouty at the parent. Your call. If it seems like there is no parent around, or that the potential parent is more invested in his or her iPhone than child, there are a few tactics you can try. You can try talking to the child. Talking doesn’t automatically mean disciplining. Maybe the kid has no idea they’re doing something wrong/annoying/possibly unsafe. You can certainly talk to a child without being rude, placing your hands on him/her, or acting holier-than-thou. Tossing out a “Which adult belongs to this child?” to try and find the grown-up doesn’t hurt either.

3. Would you talk to another adult like that? A prevalent way of thinking in our society is that it’s okay to talk to children in ways we would never think of talking to fellow adults, because children are younger and have less of a sense of agency. I’m not suggesting we treat children like mini adults; obviously they’re still learning and growing. But we should still afford them the same sense of respect we would in interacting with other grownups. Plenty of adults act like jackasses in public — do you also go out of your way to reprimand them? If so, kudos to you! You’re playing it fairly across the board. If not, maybe ask yourself why it’s so much easier to speak up when it’s a kid misbehaving versus an adult.

In a perfect world, everyone. regardless of age, would act the way you’d like them to. Sadly, that just isn’t the case. But a few, respectful, considerate words rather than some harsh admonishment of a complete stranger might be a better tactic and help get your point made without getting the stinkeye. Or potentially losing a friendship.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her new anthology, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of a child in a devil costume via Shutterstock]