Should You Ever Discipline Another Parent’s Child?
6 mins read

Should You Ever Discipline Another Parent’s Child?

Last Sunday, I sat with a group of parents watching our nine-year-old daughters play the first basketball game of the season.

Next to us, a young boy, maybe five years old, sat playing on an iPod.  No headphones.  It was very loud.  It was very annoying.

His mom sat on his other side, oblivious, cheering for her daughter.

One of the dads leaned over to the young boy.  He asked  — nicely, with a smile — if the boy had headphones or could turn down the volume.

Before the boy could answer, his mom intervened.

“Next time, you can ask ME instead,” she said angrily.  She huffed and made a big deal of moving her son a few feet away from the dangerous parents. She did not ask her son to use headphones or turn down the volume.  The noise was still really annoying.

I was flabbergasted.  What was wrong with asking the boy to be considerate of others nearby? Clearly, in the mom’s mind, it was unacceptable for someone else to approach her child no matter how innocuous the criticism.

I spent the next hour wondering why it’s offensive to talk directly to a young child about unpleasant behavior, instead of going through his or her parents.

A few days later, my nine-year-old daughter came to me in tears after school.  My daughter has her first “boyfriend,” who is really just a boy who is a friend. It’s not as if they go out to clubs until midnight; I think they held hands after school once. We’ve known him since first grade; his parents and we agree this is an innocent, delightful, age-appropriate development.

What brought on my daughter’s tears was that a teacher told her it was inappropriate to have a boyfriend at her age.  That she couldn’t sit next to him during assemblies or at lunch.  That she wasn’t supposed to talk to him at recess.  The teacher made her feel so ashamed that she broke up with the boy that day.

This is my daughter’s version of events.  It may not be entirely accurate.  But since the teacher didn’t come directly to me, I have no idea what was said.

I found myself in the awkward position of being angry that the teacher went to my child with feedback about her behavior, instead of coming to me.

Just like the touchy mom in the basketball gym.


Maybe there is a difference between the two situations, I’ve since been asking myself.  Is there some kind of invisible guideline delineating when you should approach a child directly, and when it’s appropriate to talk to the parent instead?

There are two debates at play, in my view.

The first: “it takes a village to raise a child” vs. the alternative “it’s none of anyone’s business how others raise their children.”

Sometimes adults need to guide other children towards appropriate behavior. You can’t let kids act like hellions just because their parent is not at school, a birthday party, a museum, a public pool, or someone else’s house.  Defiance can ruin a group event; it sets a bad example for other kids. If we are in my house, or my car, I reprimand a child who misbehaves, especially if it’s a safety situation like refusal to buckle a seat-belt.  I clue in the parents later, so they can deal with it as they see fit.  And if it is my child who is acting up, ditto — sometimes other parents call me when my kid was the bad seed that day.

The other point-counterpoint: “adults – including teachers — need to be careful not to abuse their authority,” vs. “adults usually do know better and our society would crumble if we all treated children as equals in every situation.”

There is an obvious, inherent power imbalance between grown ups and people half their size.  Adults cannot boss kids around JUST because they are teachers, parents, referees or babysitters.  Sometimes, adults go too far in disciplining kids to the point of shaming them or dominating them. That’s wrong, and it can start an inter-generational cycle of bullying.

The trickiest calls come when there is a difference of opinion about what constitutes acceptable behavior.  After all, different families raise their kids with different values. Is playing a booming video game on an airplane okay?  Can someone else’s nine-year-old wear a tube top to a party at your house?  When do you ignore what you think is bad behavior in a child?  When do you intervene?

The cautious tactic: do nothing.  Let it go.  Explain (later) to your own children why the behavior was unacceptable.

The next-most-cautious: approach the parent or child gingerly.  No one – no one – likes to be criticized, or hear their child criticized.  But hopefully, reason will prevail, especially if you can use the deflective I-phrasing (“I’m sorry, I’m having trouble concentrating”) instead of the accusatory (“Your spoiled rotten kid is driving me insane”).

Another idea: have a coach or lifeguard or flight attendant intervene.  Sometimes a third party can be more tactful.

Like so much of parenting, each dilemma requires judgment. But my instinct is to keep in mind that one day, that obnoxious kid is going to be an adult.  Maybe a parent too, setting guidelines for another generation.  Everyone might benefit from your intervention, if you’ve got the diplomatic skills – so very critical for stress-free parenting – to pull it off.

What do you think? If a child is behaving badly in your presence, do you say something or ignore it? 

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