Disciplining other's kids is a minefield, so tread very carefully
Judith Ancer: I'm sure many of us have been in this situation. It's a Sunday lunch braai with a group of family and friends and an assortment of children, yours and theirs. It's great to be able to relax with other adults while the kids play in the garden.
And then you see that someone else's child seems overexcited. He tramples through your host's prized flowerbed, knocks over a toddler in his path and, without stopping, grabs the ball from children who have been playing a game.
They try to get it back, but he runs away with it, mocking their protests and attempts at retrieval.
His parents seem unconcerned by his behaviour despite the fact that he races past them triumphantly, abducted ball in hand. In fact, his father comments on his son's future as a Stormers fly-half and his mother smiles indulgently and says her son has so much energy that he could be the Duracell bunny.
"Reform school or jail," you think darkly. Out of the corner of your eye he is now throwing stones at the puppy. You are desperate to make the child stop and, despite your attempts to be a calm and nonviolent parent, you are itching to bellow at him or smack the brat. You know you will feel vindicated if the puppy bites the child. Have you become a monster too?
The dilemma of how and indeed whether or not you have the right to discipline other people's children is the starting premise of the 2008 award-winning novel, The Slap, by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas.
A parent at a suburban braai slaps a young child who has been misbehaving throughout the social event and threatening his own child with no efforts from his parents to restrain him. The various characters debate whether striking a child can ever be justified. Is this a case of administering some much-needed discipline to an unruly child, or should the police be called in to investigate a charge of assault or child abuse?
In my clinical and personal experience, most parents have times when we doubt our parenting abilities. We second-guess our own decisions and are extremely sensitive to any criticism, real or perceived, about our parenting skills. Criticisms of our children are, by extension, criticisms of us. Our lack of confidence in this area means that many of us feel we do not have the right to be critical of other parents. We also fear that if we criticise them that gives them the right to judge us.
In many traditional communities, child-rearing was a more collaborative endeavour - all the adults had the freedom and responsibility to educate, manage and discipline children, and parents were more accepting of such interventions. This is not the case in the more Western, urban model of parenting, where criticism or disciplining of other people's children can quickly sour an occasion and harm a friendship. Perhaps it's because there isn't the same sense of shared values and spaces.
But what are we modelling to our children if we ignore behaviour from other people's children that we limit or forbid in our own homes? Are we so afraid of being politically incorrect or upsetting the parents that we end up doing nothing when the situation begs intervention? Much better, surely, to show children that there will be a certain level of behaviour expected in all settings, including your house and public spaces. As parents we should learn to take it less personally if other adults contribute to disciplining our children in a constructive manner, and we should expect the same of ourselves.
Here are a few guidelines you might want to bear in mind when other people's children misbehave:
- If a person or animal is about to be hurt, or a crime committed, you should obviously step in immediately.
- In your house, your rules apply, especially if you are the only adult present.
- Don't ridicule, humiliate, hit, smack or use other physical forms of punishment on other people's kids, even if you use it on your own - then you will have crossed the line.
- If a child's parents are present and indifferent to bad behaviour, act in a firm but polite or humorous manner that generalises the rules to all children. "Sorry kids, we don't allow eating in the lounge in our house." Or: "I think I'm going to ground those boys till their bachelor parties if they keep teasing the dog."
The first rule of parenting other people's children is just that: master a firm but kind tone of voice, with an occasional hint of humour. "You 'wretched hive of scum and villainy'," you might say in your best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice, "switch that TV off and go and play outside." That will usually work. If it doesn't, at least you'll feel as cool, witty and in control as the great Star Wars Jedi Knight himself.