It takes a village to create a monster My kindergartener has become a monster—and I blame you. You can, and should, discipline other people's children.

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.

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13 thoughts on “<span class="entry-title-primary">It takes a village to create a monster</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">My kindergartener has become a monster—and I blame you. You can, and should, discipline other people's children.</span>”

  1. Sadly, I think it is human nature to say "Oh, it's okay." and it is not necessarily a direct attempt to subvert a parent. Still, it IS a problem. Thank you for this post, I am going to begin saying "Thank you." I think that should cover it, no?

    I will say that I have absolutely NO issues reprimanding another child at play areas etc. if the parent does not step up immediately. It does not matter if my own kids are involved or not - I am not afraid to tell a kid to back down or tell him/her that their behavior is unacceptable. I have watched other children get plowed over, hit and kicked so frequently by obnoxious kids that I am no longer shy about it. I am so tired of inattentive parents who let their kids get out of control while the parent is too busy sitting on their phones or finishing their lunch at a nearby table.

    And Jenn Satterwhite's comment struck a chord with me, too. My nephew is on the spectrum and dammit, I wish there could be a special signal or something to let folks know that my sister is trying to do her best to get control of the situation and that Nolan is not just a bratty 5 year old. My sister is very very careful about preparing him for situations as best as she can, but there are so many unknowns for which she simply CANNOT plan. What's the alternative - give up on life and keep my nephew locked up at home?

  2. Great post! Thank you, Shannon, for writing this. What a thoughtful piece and I loved reading other thoughts, perspectives in the comments.

    I agree with you. My son has autism, and while he's come a long way socially and emotionally, he is at that point where he needs to hear other voices, people other than mom and dad, calling him out on unacceptable behavior, or reinforcing what we are teaching him at home.

    Here's a funny story: One day as he followed his speech therapist up the stairs at school, he patted her behind. She didn't laugh. She didn't overreact. She calmly told him that while he might playfully do that to mom as she walks up the stairs at home, it was not okay to do to her (or anyone else). She then called me at home to tell me what happened. We giggled a bit, because, seriously, he was just goofing around and didn't realize. But he got what she said. Not only has he never done it again, he's never even done it to ME again. Lesson learned. I have a feeling that if I had been giving the lesson, we'd still be working on it. Or, if she had ignored it, or somehow excused his behavior, it would have escalated into a full-blown bad habit. Sometimes, that outside voice makes a strong impression. And when you treat a kid firmly, but with respect, you're doing them--and the rest of us--a favor.

  3. This is a tough one. I am the mother of a six year-old boy. I also remember very well what it was like not to be a parent. I can understand many sides of the issues presented here. Adults who say its okay are not overriding your parenting. They are merely trying to keep the peace and be nice to YOU (e.g., not try to make you feel embarrassed) and move on. I say this as someone who, prior to having kids, did this all the time. I saw the "it's okay" as being reassuring to the parents that I thought the behavior was normal kid behavior. I was trying to make the parent feel better. I didn't even see the other side of it (in terms of teaching the kids manners) until I had a kid and he treated another adult rudely. Sometimes people just don't see. Don't you, daily, come across something that you simply didn't know prior to having kids? I do.

    Other parents are simply a "box of chocolates". You just don't know what you are going to get. I'm actually with you. I'd prefer that someone correct my child if he is misbehaving out of my sight (or at least tell me about it). I do try to be diligent in supervising him, but I can't be there every second. In my experience over the last 6 years, most parents are not like this. They take any correction of their children as a hostile attack. Being a parent these days has become so loaded - there is so much judgment (from family, outsiders, other parents...everyone) and fear involved. Unless safety is a concern (such as the stomping incident detailed above), I will not get involved.

  4. Really, truly -- thanks for all your comments.

    Just want to reiterate my main points:

    1) Stop overriding my parenting -- if I tell my kid that her behavior is inappropriate, please don't contradict me by telling her that smacking your butt is okay.

    2) Don't let kids disrespect you. If a kid is behaving badly towards you, tell them, clearly and non-judgmentally, how their behavior is affecting you (as with Brandy's I Statement above).

    3) And the world ... will be a better placer. For you. And me. You just wait. And see.

    As for Jenna/Firemom's scenario about interceding when kids are physically harming others, I didn't really address that in the post -- but if no other adult was taking action, I would probably tell the other child to cease and desist. My risk would be mostly verbal and emotional, whereas children deserve to be protected from bodily harm.

    Again, I believe our responsibility lies in teaching children to respect others, and to teach that respect as a society. If we're consistent enough, the overly defensive parents who seem to frighten so many good people may learn something, too.

    PS. In case you're worried I don't adore my youngest, here's a direct quote from a recent post on my personal site: "She is one of the best things that has ever happened to our family, and that is a sentiment that needs to be on the public record."

    Final note: Nordette, thanks for the solid practical advice. I so wish we even *knew* our neighbors.

  5. I have issues at the playground. I try not to be a helicopter parent, which I find myself leaning toward because of my loss issues. I try to let them play on their own. I try to let them deal with situations that arise on their own.

    But this past Fall?

    A five year old kicked my not-quite-two-year-old in the face. And a seven year old pushed my not-quite-four-year-old down the steps of the slide ladder because he wasn't "going fast enough." In the second scenario, the mother of the offending child told me that she was "okay." No, she wasn't.

    But I hate confrontation.

    I can tell my friends' kids to "stop it, now, please." I can tell them to sit down on the couch at the coffee shop we visit once a week so that my kids don't do it, too. I can ask them to quiet down. Why? Those kids parents' will do the same with mine.

    But strangers? I'm not comfortable doing that. The playground gives me all kinds of anxiety. But my kids love the playground. I don't know how to handle it. I don't know what to do. I freak out. Mainly because I know how it feels to have my parenting called into question and I fear doing that to others. And, so, I struggle here.

    Should I have said to the seven year old girl's mom, "No, it's not okay for her to push my three year old." Or is that asking for a petty, mommy fight? I don't have time or energy or desire for that.

    Help me. 🙁

    • I’m not a people mommy, but something hat might help you take on the confrontation in those cases is the message that it will send to your children.

      If it’s some kid just being naughty, then I completely agree with your response- who wants to bother with some potentially snotty mom who thinks their child can do no wrong?

      BUT, in the case where your child was pushed or kicked? That is something worth fighting for, if only to let your little loved-one know that you are their protector and will not let anyone harm them on your watch. I think that would help your kids grow up with a greater feeling of safety, knowing that they’ve got a super-mom at their back.

      And you sound like you are absolutely a super-mom

  6. I have waited to comment on this post because, truthfully, I am a person who will not correct a stranger's child. It is 100% because I don't want some angry parent attacking me. As a parent myself, I do all that I can to make sure that my son is well behaved. I'm not the mom screaming at my child in public, but I'm the one standing with him in the corner of the restaurant while he has a time out and a little discussion about his behavior. There are no breaks for him, even in public. If he walked up to another person and smacked their butt, they wouldn't have the opportunity to say anything before I was on it, pulling him away and apologizing up and down. He's MY responsibility. It's MY responsibility to teach him what is and is not socially acceptable. He can and does forget the rules every now and then, and I've had to apologize to people many times, but ultimately it's on me to make sure that he walks the line.

    I get it though. I really do. I'm not a very social creature myself. My husband, son and I have just returned to the East Coast where family and friends live. We lived 3,000 miles away from all family and friends through a hard pregnancy, a financial crisis, and the first two years of my son's life. I'm used to being on my own and having to do it all myself. I didn't necessarily want it this way, but it is what it is.

    Still, I don't want some crazy soccer mom trying to throw down with me simply because I corrected her child. I seem to believe (be it true or not) that there are more parents out there who would flip out over such a thing than not. It's just easier and less stressful to remove myself from the situation as fast as possible. Does it make me a coward? Maybe, but I accept that.

  7. Love the title, and the opening's great too, Shannon. Excellent points too. If my older relatives were here, they'd tell you how it used to be that anyone in the neighborhood would correct children. Now people don't because they fear reprisals from the parents. I, however, lived with the fear that adult spies would tell my parents if I misbehaved. 🙂 And they would have, understanding my parents would be grateful like you, not angry at them. So, in that case, I guess the buck stops with parents sometimes for creating a climate where adults fear offering guidance to children other than their own.

    I'll tell a child in a minute to stop doing something, especially something dangerous, if the parent's not around. However, I've been in situations where a child's going nuts, the parent is there, and doing absolutely nothing.

    Funny note. My daughter works for a retailer and she's seen children push on displays, etc. She says she's goes up to them and says, "I would leave that alone if I were you. What will you do if it falls on you?" And they stop. She says they always look as though it never occurred to them that what they were doing could hurt them.

    I have a story about being a little girl myself and questioning my mother in a store about another child's rowdy behavior, the kind I knew that would get me in trouble. We didn't know the people, but the child's mother heard me and turned around and yelled, "You're so right, little girl! She doesn't know how to behave!" And that scared me to death. LOL.

    Anyway, yes, the community should uphold certain standards for behavior, a modicum of common respect, that we all understand, including our children. Something like hitting a stranger's butt should not be laughed off even if it looks fairly amusing.

  8. My husband was at my son's soccer practice, and he saw this boy, age 5ish, STOMPING on a little girl. It goes on for several minutes and he said that the little girl's begging cries of "Please, stop that, it hurts, please, please...." forced him to do something. So he goes over to the boy and says "You need to STOP that, you're hurting her." He put his hand on the boys shoulder.

    Angry, defensive mother, enter stage right.


    He says "He was hurting this little girl." She says "That's his sister." (oh, that's okay then?) He says "THAT little girl ISN'T his sister" The boy was hurting a total stranger, and this mother was so worked up (I hope she was embarrassed that she was off yammering with the other moms and not watching her kids) that she threatens to call the cops. He says "Fine, I'm not the one willfully ignoring their child, while he assaults a young girl. Let me call them for you."

    In a space of seconds, this is how far it degrades to. That's some pretty strong negative reinforcement to NOT get involved with other people's kids.

    So, if we want to place blame on the collective parent for the bad behavior, we then have to take that blame RIGHT BACK on our shoulders as child's parent.

    When YOUR child is acting poorly in public, 1-stop the behavior. 2-don't flip the hell out and make it so we want to ignore every child that we see.

    My husband and I will continue to help out other parents, I think it is our responsibility. I think that this disconnect we have from our fellow man is exactly what's getting us in this situation, and I am okay being the one person who fights the tide. I will compliment your child when they're quiet at dinner (especially super young moms, as I was), and I will ask your child to stop kicking my seat at the movies.

    And I'll even make EVERY EFFORT in public to keep you from feeling like you need to speak to my children. It's easy, because they know that it's going to come back two-fold on THEM, if another adult has to correct their behavior.

    Thank you for being the positive reinforcement for us. Parenting is hard, and we can't know everything at every second, I would want another parent to help me out, and it's good to know that some parents want my help, too. 🙂

  9. I, too, am raising an autistic son and a younger son and am disgusted with the way everyone excuses (especially my youngest son's) behavior on the basis of "cuteness" or some sordid sense of social fear of conflict or offending a "handicapped" person.

    My four-year-old has become downright mouthy and still people will excuse it by saying "Oh, isn't he a rascal!"

    BARF! They seem to lack the nerve to simply say "Michael, when you say ______, it makes me feel _______." And he's never going to know until someone tells him. And until someone tells him, he's just going to have to take my word for it and we all know that's only the second-best way for him to learn it.

    It actually DOES take a village to raise a child, but I'm rather put out with the villagers at the moment.

  10. I applaud you!

    This post made my day. It's nice to see that there are parents in control and don't agree with what society is teaching!

    I work at a preschool/daycare and with working with kids you learn a lot about how to deal with and restructure unacceptable behavior. We are open for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. And some of the children are there from open to close, so it's almost as if we've become their parents for more time than their own parents are. It's so frustrating when you spend all day with these children, working on their behavior and teaching being nice to adults and always answering yes when being asked to do something reasonable, and then the parents come and pick the children up and it's a total 360. The children all of a sudden become ill-mannered and demanding, yes, seriously...demanding. It makes my mouth drop open at times because all I can think is, if you'd just put your foot down with your children and stop worrying about them "hating" you, you'd have better behavior from them. Going out into public kills me most days because of the way children act with their parents and with other adults. How can you let a child live without boundaries? That's not "the real world", so why teach them that growing up? Of course I understand the developmentally appropriate logic, but it don't think it's all that realistic for the most part. Give children choices, yes. But don't give them choices all of the time when you don't want to receive a "no" answer. If it's time to go, it's time to go. Don't let your children tell you what to do. It's just obnoxious. Be the parent first and friend second.

  11. Yes, I admit I'm one of those parents who won't butt into your business and tell off your five-year-old so I accept responsibility for your little "monster." But, I'm not convinced that the actions that take place outside of your home make your child what she turns into. It's good news, after all, because you can't control every person your child encounters. You can, and do, control what happens at home and after all is said and done, you are your child's most influential teacher. So, as long as you are consistently reinforcing the good that she does, she'll end up okay. Keep the faith. The hard work pays off. I promise.

  12. I like this post and...but...I'm not the type of parent who would ignore a child's misbehavior. My experience has been that many people, from a broad cross-section of backgrounds, don't welcome another adult, especially a stranger or near-stranger correcting their little darlings. I've also done a lot of work as a parent educator and a leader of parenting workshops and there are some parents where you cannot intervene without getting into a serious battle. In a number of discussions it has come up that people have wanted to intervene in public situations where they've seen children either misbehaving or just having meltdowns but they didn't feel safe in doing so because of the attitudes/behavior/looks of the parents.

    I tend to take my cue by looking at the parent and seeing where their at. I've gently asked if I could make a suggestion or whatever.

    Great title for this post. I hear you.

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