Other People’s Kids
You’re on the playground and another child throws sand in your kid’s eyes. His/her mother is across the playground changing her second child’s diaper. Do you:
a. Reprimand the child, “No throwing sand!” and/or instruct the child, “You need to keep your shovel low….”
b. Talk to your own child about the other child’s behavior, “That was naughty. He shouldn’t have thrown sand in your eyes. We never throw sand.”
c. Find the parent, “Your son just threw sand in my child’s eyes…”
d. Tend to your own child and say nothing. Maybe praise your own kid for not throwing sand.
e. Do something else: ____________________________________________________
Maybe it’s the psychologist in me. Maybe it’s personality-driven, but I often find myself in a position where I am tempted to modify the behavior of someone else’s child—not because I think I know better or I believe the parents of these children are lacking in skill. In fact, I typically get the urge when I witness a child doing something parents generally wouldn’t want their child doing i.e., posing a danger to himself or other, but the parent is out of sight/earshot. I feel a strong duty to communally parent. I do think it takes more than Kevin and me to raise Sophia. I want other parents looking out for and helping my child become a kind and considerate human being. Therefore, I feel the imperative to do the same.
But…and here’s a big but…I realize that not everyone feels the same way that I do about this. And even if I did the exact same thing that they would in that situation…it makes them uncomfortable that I’m the one doing it. So what to do, what to do? Every child is different. Every situation is different. I try to evaluate the kid and the situation as quickly as possible, which requires making some informed assumptions about his/her motivation for the behavior, and make my move. I have shot withering looks, but not said anything. I have gently suggested an alternative behavior. I have quietly scolded. I have redirected. I have modeled a new and improved way to act. I have done nothing, but felt remiss.
But you never know when another parent is going to take you to the mat on this. Or simply express discomfort.
Even with friends. Good friends. People you have known a long time, extending your parenting to their children can be complicated. I can think of at least one occasion on which a parent was annoyed with me—not for reprimanding the child in question, but for trying to help him down from a height so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. The parent felt that he should experience the consequence of his actions. I didn’t agree. Not in this case. I kind of believe that if you can prevent pain and suffering…you should do it.
I understand others may think I’m being over-protective. And they may be right.
My friend Nan and I have a deal. We have each explicitly given the other permission to discipline our kid(s). Meaning if I, hypothetically, catch one of her boys throwing rocks in the other’s general direction (be it intentional or not) I am allowed to redirect, reprimand, and/or remove said rocks. And, by the same token, if my daughter rips something from her daughter’s grasp, Nancy is allowed to rip it right back out of her hot little hands (and redirect, reprimand, etc.) It is such a relief to have this agreement. I don’t have to worry about stepping on her toes or holding my tongue. Granted, Nancy and I have VERY similar parenting styles and generally “correct” our children for the same offenses in the same way. I imagine if Nancy took out the wooden spoon each time Sophia had a property rights issue I might feel differently. But how we parent has always been part of our conversation. And because we struggle together with these questions, we have a deep understanding of the frame of expectations we have for our kids.
But it’s not a conversation I’ve had with every parent of every child I know. Sometimes, it’s less explicit—more intuitive.
The other night, when over at a neighbor’s house and I caught myself saying, “no,” to her son, I checked in with his mom.
“I realize that we’ve never had this discussion, but is it okay if I say no to your kids?” I asked, albeit a little late, but fairly certain of her response. I have watched, with gratitude (and only mild embarrassment that I wasn’t doing it myself), when she has encouraged Sophia to couch her demands with a “please” and “thank you.” My neighbor’s children are, hands down, the most polite kids I have ever encountered, and it’s all due to her consistent encouragement that they mind their manners. Something I could work on.
“Of course!” she called from the other room.
“I thought so. But I wanted to be sure….” And it felt good to be sure.
But one mother told me about a similar conversation she had with a friend didn’t go quite as well. “You know, you can discipline my kids if you see them misbehaving,” she offered to her friend.
The friend was appalled, “Oh no. I just couldn’t!” She insisted.
“And she wouldn’t—even though I gave her permission,” the mother was surprised by her friend’s reaction.
“You know what that probably means,” I said, “she doesn’t want you disciplining her kids.”
“Oh!” The mother acknowledged that this was very likely the case. And though she could respect that, she didn’t think she’d be getting together with her much in the future.
At least she knows where she stands.