Who dares discipline other people's children?
What are the rules of engagement today when it comes to reprimanding other people’s children, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
‘DOES YOUR mother know you smoke?” Decades later I can still hear the deeply disapproving voice of an elderly lady sitting on a park bench after she had beckoned me and my older sister over to her.
At the time I thought she was just daft – and blind as a bat because it was candy cigarettes she had seen us “smoking”. I was also taken aback, being only eight, that anybody would think we would have real cigarettes.
But in hindsight, I can see the merit of her intervention (even if she was mistaken) – reminding us that we might have been out of the sight of our mother, but other adults were watching and prepared to scold us.
That kind of culture, summed up in the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, is rapidly being replaced by a “Don’t tell me how to raise my child” attitude.
While once adults would not have thought twice about ticking off someone else’s misbehaving child, now they tread very carefully.
So what are the rules of engagement today when it comes to reprimanding other people’s children?
Obviously, any physical chastisement is out of the question – after that it all depends on the context and the manner in which it is done. In your own home, it is perfectly reasonable to insist visiting children conform to house rules – easy enough if they are on a play date, but needs a bit of tact if the other parent is present.
Out in a public place, it is much trickier – you have fewer obligations and less right on your side to get involved. And there is a distinction between what is unsafe and what you consider obnoxious, and whether or not there is another adult around who is responsible for the offending child.
“I don’t think you should correct other people’s children because every parent’s rules and expectations of behaviour are different,” says Martina Newe, mother of two children and co-founder of Help Me To Parent.
Only if there is “clear and present danger” – to themselves, to somebody else or to property – should you intervene.
“If you have a problem with another parent’s child, then talk to the parent and if they agree, they will discipline the child,” she suggests.
It wasn’t like that when Teresa Keogh was growing up in the Liberties in Dublin, where they were all “one big family”.
“It did not matter who your mother was, your next-door neighbour would give out just as much as your mother would,” she explains. “We had 50 mammies – 50 people telling you what to do.”
The children were always conscious that someone was watching, which could be annoying, she agrees, but generally “it made you feel safe and secure. You did not have to worry like kids today.”
She saw times change as she went on to raise six children herself – now ranging in age from 15 to 31 – first in Tallaght and then, for the past 10 years, in Tullow, Co Carlow. “People keep themselves to themselves and are afraid to intervene because they don’t know how people are going to react.”
When she lived in Tallaght, she says if she saw two kids fighting on the street, “I would get in the middle of them and say, ‘Would you stop that and apologise to each other’. They would look at me and say, ‘She’s a weirdo’, and they would have something to talk about other than what they were fighting about, which was grand.”
As a “blow in” to Tullow, she does not feel that kind of interaction with the locals’ children is welcome. Some parents “kind of look at you and go, ‘Hello, that is my son, you have no business to be talking to him’.”
It only seems acceptable to other Dubs who have moved down, she adds. “We were all brought up in the same way.”
Elaine Smith, a mother of four living in Mornington, Co Meath, says that she tells other parents to give out to her children if they see them messing, and a few other parents would say the same to her.
She believes the more children you have, the more likely you are to welcome other parents reprimanding them if they are spotted misbehaving. “You are more relaxed; you know how tough kids can be and the precious first child syndrome has gone out the window.”
However, there are parents whose child can do no wrong, she says. “You know those kids and they are not ones you can give out to because they will go running back to mammy and daddy.”
Parents are “very, very private” these days and less inclined to believe or admit their child could do any wrong – “for fear of what people would think of them as parents”, says Joan Barrett, a parenting coach in Co Kerry, and mother of six children. She recalls how she became aware one night that her underage son had been out drinking with friends in an open space. She wondered whether or not to tell the parents of his friends.
“I did nothing – this is the age in which we’re living. People would not want to believe their teenager was capable of going out into a field drinking.” In hindsight, she says “of course” she should have said something – in the spirit of education.
“If I am prepared to admit my young fella was in there, I am not passing judgment on others,” she points out – and that is a good approach to take for parents in a similar situation.
Parentline gets quite a few calls from people looking for advice on how to handle other parents’ children. The answer is always “sensitively”.
“If a child is misbehaving in your house – against your house rules – you would say, ‘We don’t like that behaviour in this house’, and that is probably as far as you would go,” says Parentline manager Rita O’Reilly. “If it’s particularly bad, you might say, ‘I think if you continue to behave like that you will have to go home’.”
Sometimes parents ring up concerned about a child’s behaviour and ask if it might be an indication of something going on and should they interfere. Generally it depends on what sort of relationship you have with the other parent, says O’Reilly.
“But if you are genuinely concerned about something, know the parent well and can deal with it sensitively, you might raise it with them.”
Out and about, in a playground for instance, if you are in charge of children who are misbehaving you comment, but if not, you remove your child from the situation and leave the other parent to deal with it, she says.
“Unless he is damaging your child in some way, for instance fighting with your child, you might say, ‘No, that is not allowed’, and walk away.”
Susan, a mother of four in living in south Dublin, has other people’s children in and out of her house all the time.
If she overhears a visiting child being rude and upsetting another child, she will usually intervene with a comment such as, “That’s not a very nice thing to say”, and ask them to apologise.
It is not fair on her own children, she says, to let bad behaviour by other children pass in their house when she would not tolerate it from them.
However, she is feeling a little guilty about yelling at a neighbour’s four-year-old boy last week after he emptied a bucket of cold water over the head of her two-year-old daughter. She then sent him to the “naughty step”.
“I should not have shouted,” she says, but she believes the “naughty step” was appropriate as she knows his mother also uses one.
“From his point of view, it was probably no different from being chastised by his mother”, although she did not give a full account of the incident to her when she came to collect him – and kind of hopes he was too young to tell her.
‘I THINK PARENTS HAVE GOT A BIT MORE LACKADAISICAL’
When you have hired a babysitter to go out for dinner with your partner, there are few things more annoying than having to endure other people’s noisy children at a nearby table.
There was a time when the more “adult” restaurants would not have allowed children in the evenings. But these days, when family celebrations, such as a birthday or an anniversary, are core business, they cannot afford to deter them.
Pity the poor restaurateur who has to tell parents mid-meal that their little darlings are giving everybody else indigestion.
Preparation is key when children are dining out, says Julie Cox, owner of Beaufield Mews in Stillorgan, Co Dublin – both on the part of the restaurant and the parents.
Her restaurant would always try to ascertain, at the time of booking, the numbers and ages of children in a group, so there are sufficient high chairs for a start. Staff would look at the floor plan, keeping families in one area and people looking for a quieter dining experience in another.
“We would also advise them to come early – a young child will not be in best form at 8pm, it would be much better to come at 6pm.” The Beaufield Mews has the advantage of gardens where children can go out and let off a bit of steam between courses. Colouring books and toys are also supplied.
However, if things get out of hand, “we do have to ask the parents to look after their child”, says Cox. “You can’t have a screaming child in a restaurant.” And what may seem like a quiet cry to a doting parent can be a loud shriek to everybody else.
There is also a safety issue, when children are running around a restaurant and waiters are carrying hot food.
“I think parents have got a bit more lackadaisical about the whole thing. Discipline starts at home – if they are ill-disciplined at your kitchen table, they are going to be ill-disciplined at the restaurant table.”
As a mother of three children herself, aged 11, eight and four, she knows how stressful it can be eating out as a family, but parents do need to be pro-active. Choose a restaurant carefully, she advises: are the place and the menu suitable and what does it do to make a child’s meal easy?
SO WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
1. You are in a playground with small children and unaccompanied pre-teens are messing on the equipment and monopolising the swings. Do you:
a) Go home.
b) Look for a park superintendent, or some other parents,
c) Approach the older children yourself and ask them to move aside and let the little ones play.
d) Wait around until the pre-teens leave.
2. You have invited two of your seven-year-old son’s classmates home on a play date and one of them is being rude to the other visiting boy, occasionally hitting him in disputes over toys. Do you:
a) Leave the three of them to it, as they have to sort these things out themselves.
b) Call the misbehaving boy’s parent to take him home.
c) Stay with them and intervene when necessary, explaining to the boy that such behaviour is not nice and is not acceptable in your house.
d) Take your son aside and ask him to make sure his friends don’t fight and to call you if there is further trouble.
3. You know your neighbours are away for the weekend, leaving their 19-year-old and 16-year-old children at home. It is clear they are having a party as teenagers are going in with packs of cans.
a) Ignore it because it’s not your business.
b) Text your neighbour, “I hope you know there is a party in your house tonight!”
c) Go over and ask them politely to keep the sound down – thereby letting them know you are aware of what is going on.
d) Call in later, with the sole intent of checking on the wellbeing of the younger, under-age child.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting:
1. My preferred option is c) as I feel a personal intervention that is respectful will usually ensure that the response is a mirror of my interaction. If I am defensive and blaming the other party, they in turn will feel under attack and respond defensively. Avoid a communication such as “Hey, get off the swings!” Instead try a respectful, “You probably haven’t noticed but this child has been waiting a long time”, which expects the best of the other person and will usually provoke a positive response.
Marian Byrne, parenting coach
2. If siblings were involved, a) is a good option, because when you are intervening in a row it often comes down to whose side are you going to take. But where other people’s children are concerned, you have a responsibility to be vigilant. However, staying with them is going to have an impact on their play, so after you have intervened by sitting down with the three of them and asking what is going on, “hovering” in the vicinity would be more appropriate.
Unless it is a major incident, b) is rather extreme and d) is a big ask for a seven year old. But I would say that when his friends are gone, have a chat with him about how he felt and what he thinks he would do if it happened again.
Martina Newe of Help Me To Parent
3. I have personal experience of this and would always opt for c) if the sound was a problem. I would not go in unless I felt that things were getting out of hand. If they were, I would knock on the door and say, in a very friendly manner, things like, “You know your Mam and Dad would be disappointed if they saw the mess or if anything gets damaged, so just be careful okay?”
I have also used the other approach such as, “The last thing you want is for the neighbours to complain about this so keep it down”. This has worked well and the teens took heed and actually appreciated the input.
Usually, the parents know that a party will be held so, as a good neighbour, I would only interfere to make sure that their house did not get damaged or so that they would not get too many complaints from other neighbours.