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Should you discipline other people’s kids?

By Isabel Kallman

Should you discipline other people’s kids?
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?


Published August 29, 2008. Last updated August 21, 2013.
Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

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


Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

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

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