How to Discipline Other People's Kids?

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.”



I think that a 5 year old watching an iPod does not constitute bad behavior. He probably doesn't know better because no one has ever told him it was rude. Also, I can kind of see where the mother was coming from. Most sporting games are usually loud anyway and she probably figured it would keep her son occupied so she could watch the game. Who hasn't been there? It's not like she was at a nice restaurant allowing it. Can those things be distracting and obnoxious? Hell yeah they can be! But really, the father should have said something to the mother. It wasn't anything serious or dangerous that needed immediate reprimanding. If he would have asked the mother directly and nicely, she most likely would have had him turn it down so EVERYONE would have benefited from it.


I have no problem approaching other adults about anything...even the poor behavior of their children..nor would I be affronted if my child was misbehaving and another adult pointed this out to me. That isn't the issue here. The problem revolves around parents who are physically present, but completely absent mentally and socially when it comes to attending to their child's behavior. I think it's "weird" when parents ignore their children, no matter the ages, and allow them to engage in rude, obnoxious, disturbing activities while they, the parental units, talk on their cell phones, play Angry Birds, have conversations with friends or all of the above simultaneously. It's even "weirder" when said parents are asked to DO something about said child's behavior, and become infuriated because A) you dared to ask them to actually do their job, and B) you dared to cast aspersions on their precious-darling-love.
I don't see one thing wrong with asking a child to stop a rude behavior. What in the world is confusing, disturbing or traumatic about that? Maybe at two years old the child might not understand...but at five, he ought to be able to know that an adult at a sporting event politely asking him to turn down his iPod is NOT Mr. Stranger Danger (if he does think so, he has been made into a paranoid wreck by parents who believe that the perverts really are behind every bush...not in the family tree).


I think it depends largely on the situation...but I'm also not one of those people who will tolerate inattentive parents and the results: spoiled, intrusive, obnoxious kids. At the pool last summer, a group of kids were hurling a hard rubber ball around. It hit me twice. The parents were right there. I asked them, politely, if they could take the activity a bit farther away (we have an enormous public pool). They ignored me. The lifeguards tried, and were also ignored. I finally lost patience, and told a boy of about 10, "Do NOT hit be with that damned ball again". THEN mama reared her ugly head and became furious that I had spoken rudely to her darling. I pointed to the red mark on my face where the ball had just hit me for the third time and asked her, quietly, if she really wanted to make an issue of it. They all left in a huff. I got a round of applause.
I've been run into by kids wearing "Heelies" at the mall, and screamed at by parents for telling their kids to watch where they're going. A friend of my son's (who is no longer welcome in my house) called his mother a "stupid cow" and was so unspeakably rude to her at my home while she silently allowed his behavior (in front of my son) that I told him he couldn't talk to his mother, or any adult, like that while he was on MY property.
If someone spoke to my sons about the same kind of behavior (provided I didn't get to them first), I wouldn't be shocked and affronted...I'd be telling them to apologize. I am no helicopter mom, and kids make mistakes...but it is up to parents to govern their childrens' behavior in public. This includes inappropriate levels of noise (iPods, phones, hand held games, screaming, etc.), activity (in restaurants: running in the aisles, hitting the person in the booth behind you, throwing food...and yes, toddlers can be taught not to do these things, all it takes is the word "NO"; running into people at public venues, hitting, throwing things), and rudeness in general. Of course, I don't quite function under the same rules of conformity that most do, and I don't care if some woman with her phone glued to her ear and simultaneously having three other conversations with her friends plotzes because I tell her child to knock off some obnoxious behavior. She's the one who is unconscious, and whose child is out of control.

The other scenario is completely different. So your daughter has a "boyfriend" (frankly, I don't get this "boyfriend/girlfriend" stuff in elementary school, but that's just me. I don't read romance novels, or watch Reality TV or soaps, evening or otherwise, or romantic comedies). So what? The teacher made a very bad judgment call based on her particular version of morality and then laid into your daughter with a speech that is of the sort that definitely goes above and beyond a teacher's role. Does the school have a policy against "-----friends"? If this exists, are they not allowed to sit together, or play together? If so, this ought to have been addressed with YOU, not hammered into your daughter, as this wasn't an issue of poor behavior, but of accidentally breaking a rule or protocol that had not been brought your, or your daughter's attention. If the teacher had gently spoken to her and said that the school did not allow them to sit together, that would be fine (have you asked? I would. I've never been hesitant about questioning the administration of the schools my sons attended. Some have not necessarily loved me for it). But to tell her it was "inappropriate" suggests that the teacher may be the sort who finds this sort of thing immoral.
If a girl came to my 10 year old son's birthday party in a tube-top and micro shorts with "Sexy" (yep, mothers do dress their young ones this way) across the butt, I might question the parental unit's sanity...but what am I going to do? Tell the poor child to leave because some other mom might blow her wheels? Not a chance. Talk to the clueless mother about her daughter's mode of dress, especially if I barely know her? That might cause her to keep the child away from others, and she might already have problems enough. If a child smells terrible, has obvious sores, is filthy every time I see him/her and is clearly being neglected, that is something that I would address, probably through the school, because neglect and abuse are terrible things.
"It's none of anyone's business" is exactly how children get locked in basements for a decade or so. Someone hears the screams, then whimpers, but doesn't report a thing until they smell something beyond imagining...because they "didn't want to get involved". And those of us being plagued by miserable behavior have rights too. Anyone can biologically make a child...not everyone can be a parent.


With the dangers of today's world I am of the belief that even if it's a parent at a sporting event, if I don't personally know, communicate or even see the person regularly they are a stranger and this is the definition I give my son. At no point should an adult approach a 5 year old with a parent sitting right there regardless of the reason. It can and will confuse the child as to what a stranger is. However she should have had enough social grace to acknowledge the reason and had her son turn down the ipod to not impede the enjoyment of others.

As far as teachers are concerned this is a regular line that gets crossed on a daily basis. Thier standards are placed above that of the parents and in some cases the school's own policies. Whenever I have an issue like that I check thier rules of conduct if there is no rule against whatever the teacher decided to correct and it's something I would allow I immediately communicate with the teacher to find out his/her reasons why and let them know they've crossed a line and try to remedy it without having to jump heads.

Yes a village does raise our children, however society as a whole is increasingly removing itself from that village mentality. The standards by which one lives is different from another. This only leaves a child with confusion and anger at what is and isn't allowable. That's why the adults need to actually communicate with one another as to the what is permissable with thier children when we leave them in the care of another. Hopefully then our standards are kept in place.

Excellent article!


I'm battling the same question myself (my son is in K). With the 5yo, I definitely would have approached the mom (since she was right there) - but I think people here feel like that would be more confrontational than approaching the child (??). With the 9yo - I think that was just the teacher setting guidelines for school behaviour...just talking to the child. Whereas bringing the parents into it may have made it seem like a more serious offense (??)...seems like she could have been a little more gentle about it.
Personally I think its weird when people address my son about things when I'm right next to him (he's 6).
additionally, I recently emailed a parent at school about a couple issues our kids were having (we're not friends, but have known each other for years) - we'd briefly talked about it and I was following up - two weeks later still no word from the mom. However, at the start of all of this, the mom had emailed the school (principal and teacher) - but said nothing to me or my husand whom she sees everyday. Then recently when I asked her to address me directly if she has any concerns/thoughts she said the school told her that they should under no circumstances talk to us about it. Weird, because when I talked to the school - they even suggested they would set up a meeting between the families.
long story short - I'm discovering in todays society that many adults view parent to parent communication as confrontation vs collaboration. As I said to the mom @ our school - they're both great kids, only in kindergarten and we the parents are responsible for their behaviour - not the school.