My kindergartener Mali has become openly rude and defiant – to me, to other parents, to teachers, to other children. It's not just upsetting, it's horrifying. And I blame you.
Don't expect me to soft-pedal that accusation, because I'm too angry with adults who unwittingly encourage my friendly, fearless, carefully parented little girl to ignore our family rules, and behave not just badly but outrageously. Having one's parenting mass-vetoed would infuriate anyone, but it's especially frustrating for us as Mali has an older brother with autism and intense behavioral challenges, and we have invested countless hours and dollars – ours, relatives', the school district's, and the government's – in learning behaviorally-based parenting, in trying to understand what motivates our children, and in trying to shape good behavior accordingly.
The most critical part of applying behavioral methods to parenting, for us, is encouraging positive behaviors while ignoring the negative ones. That's paramount. That's our mantra. And we've seen it work, not just with our son but with both of his sisters. As I have written before:
Behavioral methods are straightforward, but they're not instinctive unless you're the kind of naturally empathetic and kind person I tend to avoid because you make me feel like a jerk. And implementing behavioral approaches systematically and consistently, especially in parenting, takes more effort than asking children to talk about what they were feeling when they hit their brother over the head with a lunchbox (though understanding that motivation is important, too). It takes a lot more analysis and upfront effort to be proactively positive instead of impulsively negative, but the results are generally worth it because you're not reacting and reprimanding, you're planning and conditioning – and conditioning sticks.
As long as we are consistent, this approach works. Problems arise when the results are inconsistent, when Leo still has difficulty processing all the stimuli in his environment and regulating his responses. When he has outbursts, and hits, and stomps, and pushes. Mali is an observant girl, she wants to know why Leo gets to behave badly and she doesn't. Why can't she? She wants to! We tell her that Leo is still learning, and it's harder for him, because he has autism.
Mali accepted our family double standard with good humor, until recently, when she realized that, actually, she can get away with misbehaving. With other people. Because when we're out in public, her developmentally appropriate button-pushing is met not with a bang, but a whimper.
Her brother's autism and the extra effort we put into parenting, that's our problem. Teaching kids like Mali to behave respectfully – that's your problem, too. Once children become social beings and start taking cues from people outside their family, social skills become a group responsibility. And, every time my freshly minted five-year-old walks up to an adult and smacks them on the bottom or otherwise misbehaves, and my apologies and reminders about appropriate behavior are brushed off with an "Oh, it's okay," because she's little and cute or you're more worried about offending a potentially prickly parent than teaching a child about appropriate boundaries, you have fed my tiny monster anew.
Step up, people. You have my permission: kindly but firmly tell other people's children that you are not okay with being treated badly! Really, it's all right. If the parent is offended, feel free to roll your eyes or grumble about them on Twitter. Your responsibility is to the child, to society.
This doesn't mean you get to tell off every pint-sized jerk you encounter – quite the opposite. I expect you to model the behavior you'd like that child to emulate. Actively participating in the parenting & discipline social sphere is not about lashing out or imposing your will on someone else's child, it's about demonstrating how being social means treating people with respect.
The critical element is the removal of judgment, because in most situations you honestly won't know why a child is behaving badly. Who knows if the kid is an autism spectrum friend of Leo, one of those kids whose lives (and parents' lives) are made all the more complicated because their special needs, their lack of social radar, are invisible. As Jennifer Satterwhite wrote on treating children with invisible special needs with respect even if you don't understand them:
...having been around [my friend's] son [on the autism spectrum] for so long, I was used to the times he would scream in public or get furious over strangers trying to touch him or look him in the eyes. It was who he is. But to others, he was that "misbehaved child" or that "screaming toddler whose mother had no control over." Judgment. Everywhere judgment.
You are not being judgmental when you tell a child, firmly but kindly, "please do not pluck at my elbow" or "please stop blocking the entrance to the slide." If the child doesn't respond – and children on the autism spectrum may not – then it is okay to go to the child's parent or adult companion and ask them for assistance. Most parents of kids with special needs appreciate a nice straightforward interaction rather than a passive-aggressive glare or a huffy exit (Please note: If we're already having a crapper of a day, we might cry; please don't take it personally.)
What is your motivation for being an assertive model citizen? Not a lollipop, apologies – and you may not get an instant reaction from little gremlins like Mali. But your lessons will sink in with enough backup and repetition from other adults. It's all about consistency, even though the world of parenting is an inconsistent place, as Madame Meow noted in her post Other People's Children:
But then there are the others. Those "other" parents, to whom you are an other yourself.
The ones that ruin the teachable moment when their little mongrel(s) do exactly what you've spent the last half an hour telling your kid NOT TO DO, FOR THE LAST TIME AND FOR THE LOVE OF SOMETHING SACRED, PLEASE.
And when said little mongrel gets to do it, and keep on doing it, without getting an earful, or glares of reproach, and your kid eyes you with a mix of hurt and resentment that makes you feel old.
People parent and interact with children differently. And that's okay. As long as we are consistent in teaching our children to respect other people, to give them a reason to respect other people. Please give my daughter a reason to respect other people.