FILED IN: Child Behavior

When It’s Someone Else’s Child

Photo: Diane Diederich

An age old parenting question: Should you reprimand, scold, tattle on or instruct another person’s child? After speaking with several parents and child rearing experts I can say without hesitation that the answer to this question is absolutely, positively…


Dipping into my own well of parenting experiences, I can wholeheartedly agree with that professional conclusion. I recall taking my two year old out for a stroll and happening upon one of my neighbors, who promptly offered up a piece of candy to my toddler. Fine by me. Obviously, fine by my toddler. But the moment my boy had the candy in his greedy little mitts, my neighbor says, “Say thank you.” And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute! That’s my line!” And then she keeps at it. “Always be sure to say thank you. Can you say that? Say thank you.” Needless to say, my internal knee-jerk reaction was “What do you think you’re doing, teaching MY child manners?” I immediately hot-tailed it home to heap upon my wife my indignation. “Can you believe that? Who does she think she is? Of all the nerve! Etc. Etc.”

My allegedly supportive wife’s response?

“So what’s your problem?”

Issue one: My wife is an elementary school teacher.

Lesson one: Never bandy child rearing with an elementary school teacher.

My wife’s reasoning was simple: Don’t be so touchy.

In hindsight I can see why it bothered me that my neighbor was offering up Manners 101 to my child: I felt like it reflected poorly on me as the child’s parent. The operative word being "ME". It bruised my fragile male ego.

The confrontation nagged at me, so I decided to get a second professional opinion. Dr. Danielle Kassow, PhD, is a research associate at the Talaris research institute in Seattle, Washington. According to their website, Talaris works to improve the healthy social, emotional and cognitive development of children from the prenatal period through age five by providing parents with tools to raise the children effectively.

I’m thinking “Jackpot!”

And Dr. Kassow didn’t disappoint. “I think you had a completely normal reaction.”

At which point I’m thinking “Ha! Score one for the non-elementary school teacher daddy.” But then the good doctor continued.

“On the other hand, raising children is a community effort.”

Yes, but as one person put it so eloquently in an on-line parenting chat-room, “In theory, we believe it takes a village to raise a child. But lately, the village feels pressure to keep its collective mouth shut.”

And that is why this problem receives the highly unscientific answer of “maybe, depends, sometimes”.

“There are many times when I have had to bite my tongue,” continued Dr. Kassow, “and not say something when I see a child doing something in public that I find objectionable. You have to be careful, because I don’t feel I should impose my values on another person’s child. However, if there are no other adults present and what the child is doing could constitute a safety hazard then that’s another story.”

Safety. Check. It’s okay to step in if life and limb are at risk. But what if a kid’s just being plain naughty in a public place and the parents aren’t doing a darn thing to stop them? According to the doctor? “Depends. There isn’t much someone can do without overstepping their bounds. It’s a fine line between constructive criticism and needless meddling.”

In effect, it all comes down to your comfort level and diplomacy skills. As the doctor mentioned, curtailing a child’s actions without sounding like you’re interfering is a razor’s edge to walk. But it’s doable. Being calm, reasonable, and clever can be your best weapons. A sense of humor is invaluable. Nothing can defuse a situation like a smile or a soft word.

So…hindsight being what it is, and with my newfound knowledge base, if my neighbor had given my child a piece of candy and said, “Say thank you,” and then glanced up at me with a smile and said “I’m sorry, that’s not my place. I’m sure they already know that.” I would have taken no offense and they would have successfully slipped in a little lesson in manners to my child. Win win!