It’s hard enough to discipline your own kids, but it’s more difficult (and awkward) to do it with a kid who isn’t yours. What do you do if some older boy is going on a shoving rampage at the playground and Mom and Dad are nowhere to be found? Do you step in and start scolding? Do you leave that delinquent to terrorize the playground? It’s a moral and ethical conundrum, and one that Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and author of The Everyday Parenting Toolkit has some experience with. Here’s when it’s acceptable (and when it’s not) to be the policing parent the moment calls for.
The 2 Occasions It’s Okay To Intervene
According to Kazdin, there are only a couple of situations where intervening with someone else’s kid is a good idea. The first is pretty obvious: “If there’s something dangerous or life threatening, you should take action. No one’s going to say, ‘Don’t save my drowning child.’” Let this be your guiding principle — no matter the level of jerkiness coming from those older kids.
The second situation is if you know the kid really well, and the guidance you’re offering is really minor. For example: “You’re at the table during Thanksgiving dinner and your sister’s kid is flicking peas across the table.” Then you’re at liberty to suggest that pea-flicking, no matter how skillfully accurate, should be pursued at a different time.
You Down With Other Parents Property?
In a strange way, kids are treated like a type of private property in America. This i s a nation where one does not mess with another person’s things. “We’re very careful in what we tell parents to do. You have a lot of leeway, which means, ‘Hands off, I’m rearing my kids,” says Kazdin.
You can see this leeway in the way the U.S. handle corporal punishment. While dozens of countries around the world outlaw hitting children (Bolivia, for example), it’s still legal in all 50 states. The United Nations has even tried to persuade the U.S. to ban it. So, basically we’re saying, “It’s my kid, I can what I want with them — but if you touch them I’ll sue.”
Be A Hero Or Be Hated
Those are your options. If you save a kid from bodily harm, you’re a hero. Anything short of that and you’re liable to really piss of the other parent. “You might be a hero, but it’s very easy to be hated for one of these things,” says Kazdin. Despite how cool it’d be to get on the local news, heroic moments are rare. “Most of childrearing is in the middle ground.” In other words, you might have to let Dennis be the menace.
Behind The Bully Is A Bigger Bully
That bully who suddenly starts pantsing and shoving everyone at the playground? There’s something else going on there. It may be some home issues behind his behavior. “A child who flies off the handle may or may not have a parent who does, too, but they’re related,” Kazdin says. “There’s probably a genetic component.” Do you really want to deal with the bigger, meaner version of that kid?
Stepparents, Get Used To Being Stepped On
Stepparents have it rough. They often can do no right by their stepchildren, and that’s not great for the biological parent who needs the help. “It’s a no-win situation for many stepfathers,” says Kazdin. “They want to embrace the children, but if they discipline them and that conflicts with what the mother would do, you have a problem.” There are going to be differences between the way mom and dad do things in any home, but it crosses the genetic line, you’re in enemy territory. “All the stepdad can do is support his wife and stay off the battlefield,” says Kazdin.
It Takes A Village — Or An Island
Kazdin says that people who live in small, homogenous societies might actually adopt an it-takes-a-village mentality to raising kids. In fact, that Africa proverb “It takes a village,” means the same thing in Lunyoro, Kihaya, or Kijita — your kids are everyone’s responsibility. In some cultures it’s not even a child/adult relationship. For instance, in Polynesia the big kids take care of the little ones. However, unless you live on a off-the-grid kibbutz or a tiny island devoid without Wi-Fi, you may want to just follow Kazdin’s advice.