Once upon a time, a child’s behavior was everyone’s business. On a given street, any respectable adult had the power to discipline kids – the voice yelling “Stop pulling up the tulips!” or “Get off the dessert buffet table!” might have been anyone’s. And if our elders are to be believed, kids listened. You could really depend on your village to help raise your child. Or so we’ve heard.
This kind of community child rearing doesn’t seem to exist anymore. You may hear two mommy friends gently steering each other’s children toward good decisions, but it’s highly unlikely you’re going to see one mom decide the other’s kid needs a time out. And on your street? You may not even know the parents of the kids you see wandering around, and well, who knows how those moms and dads would feel about you calling our their children’s bad behavior?
Actually, a lot of parents who might want to give a little wisdom to kids who aren’t their own are put off by the potential parental reaction. Tell another parent that their perfect little angels are misbehaving and you risk getting an earful, for sure. Not many of us have the confidence to question someone else’s parenting.
I’m not just talking about strangers, either. Among mom friends, the line may be less clear. For instance, can you ask a bestie’s little one to chew with his mouth closed? At a playdate, can you tell him he can’t ride the scooter without a helmet when he never wears one at home? There’s a huge gray area when it comes to verbally disciplining a friend’s kid, and there aren’t many black and white rules for handling situations where you feel like the only adult paying attention to the kids.
That said, there are three instances where you can point out a child’s behavior and feel good about it (even if their parents don’t).
1. When it’s a matter of safety.
You have every right to discipline kids who don’t belong to you when you see a child who is about to do something dangerous. Not like climbing on the steep ladder at the playground dangerous – I’m talking about jumping onto the subway tracks dangerous. If you’re running the carpool, feel free to call out the kid who won’t wear a seatbelt. Better yet, call his parents. If your house rules say no biking without a helmet, you can enforce that at playdates where you’re the only parent present. Ford dual-parent playdates, I recommend talking it over with your friend first.
2. When one child is hurting another.
Hitting, kicking, and especially biting are never cool. I don’t care whose kid is doing the hitting, kicking, or biting – the nearest adult needs to step in, take charge, and end it. One thing that has come to light since bullying started making the news is how readily grownups let kids duke it out because, hey, it’s just kids being kids. No. Just no. Kids need to learn that violence is not cool, and it’s our job as parents to teach that lesson. This isn’t Lord of the Flies. If someone else’s kid is wailing on yours and they’re just standing by, you can step in.
3. When your house is being destroyed.
I’m betting that you’ve watched as a parent stood by while his or her child wreaked havoc on someone else’s house at least once. We all know that accidents happen when kids are around, so the occasional broken plate or toy is the collateral damage of a successful playdate. But every now and then you encounter a kid who has accident after accident, leaving a wake of destruction behind him. When that wake is in your house and the parents aren’t making a peep, do step in before you end up with nothing of value left.
If this all sounds totally intimidating, make a point of sharing your house rules with the moms and dads of your kids’ friends when you’re planning playdates and other events. It helps if you and your mom friends share similar values when it comes to discipline – and how much kids can get away with at, say, parties or picnics. Then you can set some general guidelines (like you can give each other’s children time outs, but no more than X minutes long) that mean you never have to ask yourself if it’s okay to speak up.