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Should You Discipline Other People’s Kids in Public Places?



By Krystyann Krywko

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.28.22 PMI sit on the edge of the sandbox, watching my three-year-old daughter as she happily shakes sand through a sifter. I turn my head briefly to rock my infant son’s stroller, and in the wink of an eye another child comes up behind my daughter and dumps a shovel full of sand on top of her head. There are tears on the part of my daughter and a look of stunned amazement on the face of the offender. No real harm has been done, other than the fact that my daughter’s hair is now full of sand. I find some humor in the situation. I console my daughter with the fact that the child did not know better but that now, seeing her tears, he probably will. We move on.

Don’t get me wrong: As a former teacher, the urge to discipline is there, dangerously close to the tip of my tongue at times. Sure, public places like the playground, the mall, and the museum would run more smoothly if parents and caregivers were magically able to predict what mischievousness their children might stir up. But let’s face it: In our multi-tasking, multi-faceted world things happen. Your cell phone rings, the baby wants to nurse, the dog’s leash is wrapped around the stroller, and oh yeah, you are supposed to be supervising your toddler in the sandbox.

The minutiae involved in the sorting out of the lives of your own children can be mind-boggling enough without taking on the needs of the proverbial village at the same time. When I go to the playground or the park, I want to get some fresh air, maybe enjoy a coffee, and for my children to have fun—not to sit and worry about disciplining other people’s children. The longer I parent the more I realize my job is not to constantly monitor and supervise other people’s children but to learn how to negotiate these public spaces with others.

I believe when other children are misbehaving in public you have fewer rights and fewer obligations to intervene than you do if those children are your own. One mother I spoke with summed up her feelings this way: “When it’s my house, it’s my rules, but if I don’t know the child and it is in some public place where I see some- thing, then no way. Not my place to judge or discipline. If they are doing something that is bad enough, I figure the store or museum will say something, since it is their territory.”

Of course, we’re not talking about significant physical harm going on here, since we are all obligated to intervene when we see that happening, whether it involves a child or an adult. But in cases of general misbehavior, I think we need to tread carefully.

Other parents and children operate within other boundaries, ones it can be difficult for an outsider to understand. This is particularly true if the child happens to have a disability or other behavioral issue. Public spaces are not so open and inviting as we like to think, and for those who operate outside the norm of expected behavior, discipline should not come from those who do not understand. Intervening when you don’t have the background to the situation can worsen it, as a friend with an autistic daughter pointed out to me. “People constantly judge you as a parent when they look at you and your interactions with what seems to be a typical child,” she said. “More often than not my daughter just needs space, but I find that it is difficult to give her that in public.” Having another parent step in at the wrong moment—good intentions notwithstanding—is at least counterproductive and could even be disastrous.

In addition, our children ought to learn that adult intervention in public places is not always needed. As parents, we have a tendency to want to envelop our children in bubble wrap and ensure that they never feel hurt. But life is not like that; public places are messy affairs. Children have their own ways of confronting and working with those who operate differently. Instead of rushing to step in and fix every conflict, it’s often better if we stand back and allow our children space to find their own ground. That way they become better equipped to deal with difficult situations when we are not there.

And in cases where a child is misbehaving in a way that has nothing to do with my own, I simply believe it’s not my responsibility to assume the role of the parent. My discipline style might be quite different from the other parents’, and I sure wouldn’t want to create a conflict with them over whose style is the “correct” one. Who is going to be the final authority on that one?

Sure, it can be tempting to call a time-out on the little boy who is sticking his gum in his sister’s hair or to speak forcefully to the girl making fun of someone behind their back. And it’s true that I sometimes avoid public places for the simple reason that they are too crowded and yes, too full of crazed children. For the same reason, we often head to the playground at seven-thirty on a warm summer morning or avoid our local bookstore around story time. The example I want to send my children is on of acceptance and understanding. By allowing for a wide range of behaviors and teaching my children how to negotiate public interactions, they are able to see that life does not always fall into neatly prescribed categories and that sometimes it is better to forgive and forget.

Krystyann Krywko is a freelance writer based in New York City where she lives with her family. She is a former early childhood teacher, and is currently working on her Ed.D in International Education Development at Teachers College, Columbia University.



By Liza Greville

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.28.41 PMSeveral years ago I was driving down a residential through-street in a down-and-out section of town when a couple of boys caught my eye. Probably seventh-or eighth-graders, heavily pierced and wearing t-shirts in decidedly coat weather, they were pushing around a scrawny kid in a thin coat at the bus stop—a scene of bullying as stereotypical as it comes.

As a clinical social worker, I was tired of people using their power to knock others down and tired of people failing to use their power to lift others up. Actually, I’d had it. So I circled around the block to confront the bullies. It took a minute to get their attention, but I looked eye to eye with these kids and told them to knock it off. They grunted their acknowledgement. As I drove slowly away, I watched them for a while in my rearview mirror. The imposed truce seemed to hold, at least for a few blocks.

I believe we ought to discipline other people’s kids, even in public places. I believe that civil society depends on it. We are our brother’s keeper (and our sister’s and our neighbor’s kid’s), and we have that responsibility, regardless of our parental status. It’s wired into our natures, into our common lot in humanity. It’s the reason kids self-police on the playground. It’s the fire of a posse of grandmas who say “no more” to a gang of drug dealers. It’s the courage of a lone accountant who blows the whistle on a corporate bookkeeping scandal.

Looking back on the bullying episode ten years and two kids of my own later, I can’t say I’m any less frustrated by seeing people knocked down, literally or figuratively. A few years ago the National Association of Social Workers launched a bracelet campaign in the spirit of the American Cancer Society’s “Livestrong” bands. The green bands of the social workers say “Stand Up For Others.”

Stand up for others: a paramount value and one I want to instill in my kids. Yet though I believe it is a natural inclination, it is a value kids need to grow into, and the only way all of our kids will learn it is if the adults in their lives show them how.

We do a disservice to all the kids involved if, by failing to intervene, we reinforce unhealthy balances of power. For example, if I let the bossiest kid at the neigh?borhood party cut in line to crack open the piñata just to head off an expected tantrum, I reinforce the notion that willfulness ultimately prevails over fairness or righteousness. How do I expect my kids and their friends to learn to handle controversy and dissent by setting an example of acquiescence?

Second, we set the stage for large-scale misbehaviors by ignoring small ones. If I’m a field trip chaperone, and I let it slide when a group of girls dis their “friends,” I’m implicitly giving them permission to continue. What do I think they’ll be doing when they have cell phones and social networking sites of their own? Harassment is no small offense, and we’ve all seen some tragic results of friendships turned vicious.

Granted, other kids’ parents or caretakers are the foremost influence on their moral development, and the impact of my moment of discipline is probably minimal. Even so, to fail to set an example of respect and civility lets down all the kids involved, especially, I think, my own kids, for whom I am supposed to be a compass of right and wrong.

Now I won’t say I’ve never packed up and moved on as someone else’s kid flung gravel across the playground; I have. Intervening certainly has gotten a little more complicated now that I’m a parent. I understand now why parents get insecure about disciplining someone else’s kid: We don’t want to embarrass our own kids; we don’t want to mark our kids for retribution the next time we’re not around; we don’t want to get involved ourselves.

Yet I’m not sure our worries are well founded if what we mean by discipline is calm, clear, direct, and purposeful communication. I suppose there is always the chance of a blow-out with the child’s parents, but if we remain cool and focused specifically on the problem behavior occurring in the present situation, odds are for a favorable resolution.

Parenting philosophy and discipline principles aside, there is another very practical argument for disciplining children who are not your own: safety. It’s good to get involved in situations where lack of adult presence is giving way to, let’s say, an adolescent’s faulty perception of risk. One day last summer, I had to stand on my brakes as a kid jumped his bike off a back and into the road. I was only poking along the side street behind the town park, but what if another kid had come flying through, driving too fast, music blaring, and their invulnerabilities had collided?

It’s that neighbor’s kid’s keeper thing again, and once again, I pulled over and rolled down the window.

Liza Greville lives in Kane, Pennsylvania, where she walks the fine line between letting her two boys learn to handle their own problems and disciplining other people’s kids.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

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