Disciplining other people’s children


I’ve been taking note of how I interact with other people’s kids for a few months now. Ever since Jeffrey Zaslow wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Don’t We Reprimand Other People’s Children?"

He chronicled how, though many of us grew up in neighborhoods where essentially the mom down the street could be just as threatening to us as our own, though we talk today about the notion that "it takes a village to raise a child," we’re offended at having our own kids reprimanded by others and we’re really reticent to correct other’s kids.

Zaslow describes the loss to our children. He points to research that suggests we and our kids were better off when, as radio host Garrison Keillor put it, "adults were willing to tell other people’s children to quiet down or tuck in their shirts."

Now try doing so and you risk having the lawyers called in.

Zaslow recounts the experience of a mom on a school board in the Chicago suburbs who, while driving behind a school bus, noticed two teens hitting each other in the back row. When it stopped to let kids off, she asked for permission to board the bus and she reprimanded the children. Good for her, right? Wrong. Parents of the battling kids later demanded she step down from the school board for having done so. It took a school district investigation to "clear" her.


When I was in high school, I once had a pretty lively party when my folks left me on my own for a weekend. (Memo to my kids: never happening.) My neighbors were literally standing on my doorstep to "discuss" it with my parents the minute they returned. I remember my mom telling me she couldn’t go the grocery store for weeks without hearing about it! Suffice it to say my parents "discussed" the situation with me, too.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve observed: I’m genuinely happy to have other people legitimately reprimand my kids. Especially since I’m single, I love it when one of my brothers, for instance, says to them right in front of me, "don’t talk to your mother like that!" (Actually, I had a friend suggest I just get a life-like doll of some beefy guy who sits there all day with a recording that just says, "don’t talk back to your mother, don’t talk back to your mother. …")

But, I don’t like telling other people’s children to "straighten up" and worse, while I’ve written a book essentially encouraging people (OK, telling people) how to better raise their kids _ the thought of actually saying something about a little one’s behavior to anyone I know gives me the hives.

I’ve decided this comes from the insecurity so many of us parents have. It used to be that we all understood that children were these delightful, loved, but flawed creatures, and that it was our job as parents, and the community, to civilize them. Bad behavior wasn’t necessarily a reflection on us as parents, but on their own little natures. It was how we parents responded to that bad behavior in our kids that spoke to us as moms and dads. And responding well meant seeing them as they really were.

Now we too often see our children as these inherently wise and virtuous little ones, who just need to have their self-esteem built. Any bad behavior must be a reflection of us parents not using the "right" technique or something.

I fall right into the trap of not wanting to risk personally offending other parents. Perhaps more to the point, I really don’t want them to think to themselves, "doesn’t she know her own little ones can be terrors?" Yes, I do know it! I have a few good friends who know I know it, and vice versa, and boy is that freeing. The problem is we parents used to all know it. We were in this thing together.

No more. We’re too often just competing for the child _ and the parent? _ with the highest self-esteem. It’s no wonder that the "village," in the only sense that makes sense, just can’t operate in that environment.

Seeing all this makes me suddenly feel the need to go find some child ( in addition to one of my own) whom I can tell to quiet down and tuck in his shirt.

(Betsy Hart is the author of "It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _ and What to Do About It." She can be reached at www.betsyhart.net or betsysblog.com.)