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Should you discipline other people’s kids?

By Isabel Kallman

Should you discipline other people’s kids?
Yes.
Okay, next question.
No, but seriously. Liz (hi Liz!) of Mom-101 wrote about an incident that I’m still mulling over. (Such is her genius.) The incident in question took place one fateful afternoon in Target, when Liz watched two young children drop food and trash on the floor. When she asked them to pick it up, the mother told them to ignore her and leave the trash where it was. She then walked away as Liz THREW THE TRASH RIGHT AT HER HEADloudly reiterated her points. (Go Liz!)
It seemed to me that the woman was not angry with the idea that food should not simply be thrown on the ground, but that Liz would dare correct the behavior of her children. It seems like an increasingly common attitude: my kids are my own business, and not yours. It takes a village, unless that village is trying to tell my kid what they’re doing wrong.
I (politely) beg to differ. Children, even children who are not my own, benefit by knowing that they live in society, where their actions affect other people. And an honest reaction (or yes, even a correction) to what they’re doing can be an important lesson.
Which is not to say that one should yell, or (God forbid) inflict any kind of corporal punishment. And it also doesn’t mean that making the call—should I stay silent or say something to this kid?–is always easy, or straightforward. If a child is about to hurt or is hurting my child, I won’t hesitate to step in; I don’t think anyone would question that. But in less acute cases, I wouldn’t correct another child if the parent is standing right there and might not yet have noticed the offending behavior. I would try to catch the parents’ eye, and then I would let them do what they do. On the other hand, if the parent is clearly not on the ball, and the kid is being insufferable, I might have to say something—or get as far away as possible.
Other times I have no clue what to do, and I mull the situation over until it goes away. (Which really is another way of saying that I wimp out.) Just yesterday, at the playground, a boy was wielding a branch that was larger than him. He very sweetly suggested that Henry find a like-sized branch so that they could wave them at each other. I pictured the gaping head wound to come—either their own or some poor innocent bystander’s—but before I could say anything, Henry had demurred. Still, I worried about that damn branch, and if I should say something; I waited for the mother to intervene as Branch Boy swung his branch-really more like a log–over his head, but she didn’t seem to have a problem with it. If he had been a more aggressive sort or if it had almost hit someone else, I would have spoken up, but oh, the branch made him so happy, and maybe I should mind my own business sometimes? Maybe?
It’s not usually as clear-cut as children throwing trash all over Target. Damn it all.
The idea of strangers disciplining your kid isn’t something any parent wants to think about, to be sure. Just the word “discipline” seems so stern and forbidding, like someone with a starched collar is going to step up to your kid, ruler in hand. Even done gently, someone stepping in, especially in your presence, is an implicit criticism of your parenting.
I once stood aghast while an acquaintance lectured Henry—in front of me—about interrupting, and I vowed never to talk to her again. Not because he can’t be gently reminded to wait his turn, but because she was just rude, and if you’re trying to teach someone manners you should lead by example. Also, she interrupted me as I was about to point out that he was interrupting. Can you tell I’m still annoyed by this? Everything about what she did signaled to me that she didn’t think much of my parenting skills. It’s possible I’m overly sensitive on this matter, but then, most parents are. None of us feel 100% sure of what we’re doing at any given moment.
Obviously confronting a child requires a certain amount of finesse (and guts, if the parents are there). But if adults are too afraid to speak up when a kid is being disruptive or just rude, they deprive that kid of an important lesson.
What do you think, dear readers? Are other children your business, or should you stay quiet and hope they learn their lessons at home?


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Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of Alphamom.com.

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

...

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of Alphamom.com.

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

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Fabs
Guest
Fabs

I’m with you, I think you should correct other peoples kids if they are doing something wrong, whether it be a social aspect or a danger aspect.

GWIN
Guest
GWIN

I HAVE A LADY WITH 4 KIDS LICING WITH ME . THE NINE YEAR OLD IS VERY RUDE SHE YELLS NO AT ME , SHUT UP AND NONE OF UR BUSSINESS , AND WHAT EVER . SO AND DONT LOOK AT ME . WHEN I CORRECT HER SHE GETS WORSE AND THE MOTHER REFUSES TO DO ANY THING AM I WRONG ?

Jessica
Guest
Jessica

I, a childless know it all, respectfully disagree. Should you want to discipline other people’s kids? Yeah, all the time. But should you? In my opinion, only if that child is endangering other people or property. Parents have a right to discipline, or not discipline, their children as they see fit (note: I am not condoning child abuse here, and parents who cannot tell the difference between the two are a different story), and imposing your own discipline on that relationship does no good for anyone involved. Liz’s example demonstrates this: the kids learned nothing, the mother was clearly embarrassed… Read more »

motherbumper
Guest

I think other kids in public spaces AND especially those interacting with my kid at say, a playground or mall, are my business especially when it comes to something that effects everyone (like that litter example) or swearing (oh my virgin ears – I mean, my kids virgin ears) or hitting (the kid hitting, not me). And I don’t really mind when people do it to my darling offspring, as long as they don’t belittle or physically touch her (unless she’s biting/hitting or something). I’m all for a global kibbutz.

Antique Mommy
Guest

I think it depends upon the offense. If they are destroying property, I will say something. I was at a restaurant once waiting for a table and these two children were pulling all the leaves off a plant and I told them to stop it and another time on a tour of the Hearst castle a little one was pulling the threads out of a tapestry (!) and I told her to stop it. I always add a little fish eye with a weird smile for effect to keep them confused as to whether I’m a little bit crazy. Both… Read more »

torrie
Guest

Alice, you always make such good points, and this article is no exception.
If someone’s child is behaving badly, and the parent is standing right there and doesn’t say anything, them I’m absolutely going to say something.

Marnie
Guest
Marnie

If the other child’s parent(s) is nowhere in sight, and the thing that the kid is doing is something that all parents would agree is not appropriate (as opposed to something that you disagree with, but you know other parents who have no problems with it) then I think it’s perfectly fine to address the child directly. When the parent is around, I think the best way to address is to assume that the parent didn’t notice, and address the behavior with the parent. So, in Liz’s case, she could have politely approached the mother and said something along the… Read more »

caramama
Guest

I have to go with: It depends on the offense and situation. Some people have different rules than others. For example, recently there was discussion on Ask Moxie about kids going up the slide. Some parents just don’t think that’s the right way to use the equipment, others think it’s fine. I think overall, as long as it’s not affecting other negatively (all the other kids have to wait for some rogue line-jumper who takes forever to go up the slide), then it’s up to the parent as to whether or not it’s allowed. As for common decency, protection of… Read more »

Alice Bradley
Guest

I respectfully submit, Jessica, that once you’re a parent you witness so many scenarios where it’s not as clear-cut what you should do. Destroying property, hurting people and/or animals, absolutely–we have an obligation to say something. What about cursing, as motherbumper pointed out? I’ve given the stink-eye to many a then-sheepish tween who’s dared to use the f-word in front of my delicate child. Or there are kids who are mean to your kid, or shoot them with water pistols, etc… Oh, I’ve seen a lot in my years. And suddenly I’m feeling very old. I think the word “discipline”… Read more »

miriam
Guest
miriam

I agree that if the parent doesn’t care, then you’re not going to be able to do anything with their kids. If mom is there and there is no imminent danger, I’d try appealing to her first– basically treating her kids actions as surrogate for hers. If she blows you off, you could proceed as if the kids weren’t there– giving her a lecture or getting a third party involved or blowing her off as circumstances and preference dictate.

Kdblya
Guest
Kdblya

About the specific example of the stick-wielding boy, I’ve been on the other side of the scenario, biting my tongue, trying not to helicopter too much. It was a small stick, I swear. But I think lots of parents struggle with where to draw the line with their own kids. And parents do helicopter because they fear judgment from others.

wrecklessgirl
Guest

this is SUCH an interesting topic, i’m curious to hear other’s thoughts on the matter; as a previous nanny for 6 years…i err on the side of speaking up (some/most of the time). although, it is certainly a gray area. i can see how that can hurt someone’s pride as a parent…which isn’t a good enough reason not to say something by any means. go liz! 🙂

Mom101
Guest

I love hearing all the different points of view here, as I did at my place. Even the wrong ones. (No! I kid, I kid.) I’d like to reiterate Jessica, that this was no “shrill admonishment.” I was kind and quiet and polite and asked the kids with my voice ever-so-high whether they might have dropped the trash. They looked at me with pure disdain, which I think is what in retrospect got me. So we could say yeah, they weren’t throwing rocks at squirrels or waterboarding a fellow preschooler. But they weren’t in their own home; they were out… Read more »

sara
Guest
sara

i respectfully disagree with jessica. this is about whether we, as adults who share communal space with said kids, can object when offended. and i say, YES!, we can and should. of course, the objection should be calm and reasoned– as strangers, we can’t or shouldn’t really play the “because i said so” card. nor do i think it should be a lecture, and i, like alice, have certainly bristled when other moms on play dates have proceeded to patronize both my son and me with their parenting suggestions! i’ll chalk it up to this– as adults, we’re accountable to… Read more »

Bethany Zabrosky
Guest

I have found that the “Mommy Stink Eye” can silently correct a child who thinks they are getting away with something. And, like Antique Mommy said, if I have to say something out loud, I do it with a look of mischief so I don’t come across too nasty. I often get disrespectful looks back but I know that if my kids are trying to get away with something, I appreciate that another mom has got my back.

Jessica
Guest
Jessica

Liz, Alice, I appreciate your comments and perspective; certainly they are more seasoned than mine, and I respect that. But I think, when it comes down to it, my opinion on the matter is that, in most situations that do not involve injury to others or property, disciplining other people’s children is simply bad manners. Throwing hot dogs on the floor at Target is bad manners, too, but in the end, one can only be in charge of one’s own behavior, and the behavior of one’s offspring (at least until one’s offspring figures out where your car keys are). To… Read more »

cagey
Guest

A little spot of white, hot fury rises in me when I see my son doing something disrespectful. Period. It amazes me how often parents do not seem to care when their children are aggressive or rude. It really ticks me off when I see my son being rude because I know he is capable of more. Just today, at the gym, he threw some trash over a counter at the snack bar. I made him apologize to the guy working behind that counter. Yes, my kid is not even 3, but he is old enough to understand being POLITE.… Read more »

twinmomma
Guest
twinmomma

I don’t totally agree with what she did, but I don’t blame her for being upset. I think you have to be prepared for the parent to disagree with you if you’re willing to scold other children in public. I think it’s ok to discipline a child very mildly, with a soft tone and a harsh stink eye, if the parent is not right there or not paying attention but be prepared for the parent to not agree if they hear you. Doesn’t matter if it’s right or not, we parents are very protective of our little cubs and it’s… Read more »

Ellen
Guest
Ellen

I can’t help it, if I see a kid misbehaving (rather than just being annoying), words fly out of my mouth. I usually say “I’m sure your mommy doesn’t let you put your hands in the bulk food bins” (yes, actually happened–yuk) or whatever the behavior is. How many moms will contradict and say, why sure, go ahead and do that nasty thing. (except the Target lady!!) I get peculiar looks, but no one’s said anything back…yet.

Alice Bradley
Guest

I just want to reiterate that there’s a huge difference between criticizing other people’s child-rearing methods and disciplining another’s child. In the latter example you’re taking the place of a parent who’s not present or who may not have noticed what was going on.Criticizing other’s parenting skills is a minefield I’d rather not go near, unless safety is an issue (or you just lose it at target…)

decembermomma
Guest
decembermomma

In the Target example, I agree with other posters that you should approach the parents first and let them correct their children’s behavior. If the parents blow you off and you are really ticked, go to Customer Service and describe the actions and the family and let Target handle it (that’s part of their job after all). Personally, I appreciate it when people bring my child’s actions to my attention, I often truly am too tired/busy/etc to notice everything. However, I would only go straight to the child in circumstances where there is no parent around or the situation is… Read more »

Rivka
Guest

I can see two sides to this. On the one hand, I think it’s important to step in when you see a child doing something that is immediately dangerous (to self or others) or illegal. And there are situations and places in which certain other people have the right to tell my kid how to behave: the lifeguard at the pool, the clerk at the store, etc. On the other hand… in this conversation, I think we’ve all been envisioning people intervening in the same disciplinary style that we use ourselves. But there are other styles. I don’t want someone… Read more »

caroline
Guest
caroline

This post reminded me of something I witnessed on the weekend and I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts. My childless boyfriend and I were visiting his cousin and her ten month old baby and I was taken by surprise by how the baby was disciplined. The baby was crawling around on the floor and became quite intersted in a stack of magazines and envelopes stacked on a low book shelf. Naturally, she started pulling on the pile. Her mother sternly told her “NO” and brushed her hand away. When the baby continued to paw at the pile, her mother… Read more »

Katherine
Guest
Katherine

This is a good discussion. I will focus a bit more on your actual example – as opposed to Liz’s. You saw the mother of the log weilder at the park – you saw that she saw her (by your own admission) non aggressive, not too close to anyone else, happy son wielding said log. Had you chosen, at that moment, to “discipline” him I would have been wildly offended. I’m here, I’m parenting the child I know in the way I choose and I’m not really sure where you get off. That said, I correct the behaviors of children… Read more »

andrea (scout)
Guest

such a great post. i’m a big lurky fan, but have never commented before. i don’t have children of my own yet, but have i have the best job, working with them every day, selling children’s books for a living. and this scenario? it happens all the time. once and only once did i nearly lose it. two older children (we’re talking pre-teens, not toddlers), pulled enough books off the shelves to form a pile taller than they were, and threw half eaten McDonalds food all over the floor and reading tables. their father talked casually on his cellphone. after… Read more »

Sandi
Guest
Sandi

I haven’t experienced any offensive interferences from strangers concerning my children’s behavior (they’re 3 and 1). A few times, other parents at the park have called my children back from what they perceived as dangerous situations. Even if I didn’t see any real danger, I appreciated their concern and willingness to step in. I guess danger and extreme rudeness are the behaviors I’m willing to corrent in other people’s children, because I expect the same from them. What does send me into orbit is when people (including my parents – oh the annoyance) criticize my children’s behavior/habits. On several occasions,… Read more »

cris
Guest
cris

great post and great comments on a subject that is very important to me. i would venture to say that manners and good behavior in public are hard to come by these days. it brings to mind my own upbringing and i’m so thankful to my parents for instilling in me and my brothers the proper way to behave in society…with that said, people are not very open to other’s input. even though everyone blogs and invites commentary, in person it’s quite another thing. i’m unclear on what it is that made you (Alice) bristle about your friend. is it… Read more »

Carrie
Guest

I think the answer to this question varies widely according to the situation and the child in question. My sister and I are very close, and have similar discipline styles, so we have an unspoken understanding that we can discipline each other’s children. I usually do not discipline other kids, though, unless, like another commenter mentioned, the child is ready to hurt my child. I scolded a child at a park one time because he flattened my small 4 year old son, and his parent didn’t do anything. After the scolding, his parents were so embarrassed they immediately left the… Read more »

jen lovely
Guest

If my daughter was acting rudely, or in any sort of manner that isn’t appropriate and I didn’t catch it, I’d appreciate a heads up by another parent. As for whether I would discipline or correct someone else’s kids who I didn’t know? Yes and no. I would do it in a more subtle manner than I would say a friends child. Liz’s story is perfect for an example. If it was my daughters best friend who threw hot dog or trash all over Target I’d tell her to pick it up right there.I’d treat her no differently than my… Read more »

Beth
Guest
Beth

Ooo, this is such a hard one; I’m so glad to read Alice’s post and all these comments. I’ve done it wrong a couple of times and felt awful, even if at the same time I was pissed at the parent for not being on task. In theory, I’m all for the “it takes a village” approach and fine with people disciplining my kid if they don’t use physical violence, swear words, or yelling. And my daughter knows that when we are out in the world, adults in charge, including other parents, may have different rules. But when others don’t… Read more »

aly
Guest
aly

I have the Village mindset when it comes to raising children. We all need many parents keeping an eye on the kids, and helping teach. My approach is always “giving information with kindness”. I want them to be able to express themselves, have fun, but also be safe and kind. The stick scenario (I assume this was a little kid with a big stick and you were feeling worried about your child’s safety): “Wow you are so strong with that stick! I see you like to hold that stick up high (broadcasting the truth). I am feeling scared my son… Read more »

Meesh
Guest

Sometimes the parents are watching their children’s social infractions and they are still oblivious or worse- condoning. I met up with a dad parent for a play date(for the children, of course:) His dear, sweet (reads obnoxious, socially reprehensible) child’s offensive behaviors included but were not limited to spitting, hitting, biting, sassy talking, indignance, and incessant whining. He was 3. My kids refused to play with him at the park due to his blatant brattiness. He then cried and I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit as I watched his dad cuddle and console him for… Read more »

Joy
Guest
Joy

I believe that it is the parent responsiblity to disciple, stranger or not it is not another perons place. First go to the parent and explain the situation and let the parent disciple as they see fit. Case and point….. I woman I have known for a couple of years made a comment “Shame on You” to my daughter, age 8. My daughter was not sure what the woman was talking about, because she was asking the woman’s daughter to go sleigh riding, but the child had to finish her chores, my daughter thought it was wrong to have fun… Read more »

calimom
Guest
calimom

I agree with cagey. It is rude for others to discipline your kids in front of you. In my experience, it is usually the safety monitors of the world. Their only objective is to make life as stuffy and pent up as they are. They can’t stand to see a kid or anyone else have fun. Now, that doesn’t extend to things like throwing trash on the ground, or unruly behavior. I detest parents who let their kids be rude and disruptive simply because they can’t tell them no. Then, their kids become everyone else’s problem. But when other adults… Read more »

KT
Guest
KT

When it comes to correcting other people’s kids–I wouldn’t unless I were in the position of the classroom teacher or Sunday School teacher with the parent absent. If I am in the presence of another parent and their child, I let the parent handle their own child. If the child is doing something that could hurt my child and the mom is there, I’ll just remove my child from the situation and get her attention. It doesn’t worry me if she doesn’t react the way I think she should. I trust that I don’t know the child or the situation… Read more »