When an Outsider “Parents” Your Kid

Posted January 20, 2011 by

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Have you ever been in a situation where a stranger took it upon herself to scold your child in front of you? It’s uncomfortable and complicated indeed — on so many levels. First, if your ego doesn’t conquer you and send you on a mission to give that person a piece of your mind, you may just feel inadequate as a parent. (“Why didn’t I address that issue with my kid, first?”) Secondly, probably that person is a friend, co-worker, acquaintance or another parent and has something valuable to offer — something you hadn’t thought of yourself. Finally, how is this total disregard for your parental status interpreted by your observing child?Clearly, when one disciplines your kid in your absence that’s one thing; when it is done in your presence — thereby crossing personal boundaries — that’s another story.

In your absence. Granted, if neither parent is available, the supervising adult has the right to “gracefully” reprimand depending upon the circumstances. It’s best to have this “who’s in charge” thing all spelled out ahead of time. When I send my kids to friends’ homes, I tell the parent or caregiving adult to “feel free” to reproach my kid as they see fit. Now, that doesn’t mean that person could mentally abuse or take full advantage of my child and send her into 30 minute time-outs. To avoid this, before I send my kid anywhere, I establish enough of a rapport with the person and am relatively confident that they have enough discretion to avoid overstepping boundaries. Yet in the end, I am really vulnerable and at the mercy of many unknowns.

In your presence: Now this is a biggie. Certainly many of you can relate to incidents with nosy neighbors, moody cashiers, stressed-out servers and self-righteous repairmen who are all more than willing to butt-in and snarl at your kid if he acts out in public. Some people are sincere and believe they are helping by actually teaching something. Others are…well, let’s be honest, busybodies or are more concerned about being sued over your “happy boy with the new running shoes” slipping and falling on their property. Personally, this is the one that makes my blood boil — especially when this obvious intention is poorly masked as genuine interest in your kid’s well-being.

Depending on from whom it comes and the particular situation, I try to act accordingly and with grace. I’m not omnipotent; with five kids under my care, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I’m remiss about addressing an important issue on the spot. I simply haven’t enough eyes, ears, or energy to catch it all. If the person seems authentic and kind in her approach, I will thank her for her concern and address the problem again, with my kid in my personal parenting vernacular — the one my kids understand best. If the person is melodramatic and panics, or is outright nasty and scares my child, I will politely, yet firmly, state that it is my responsibility, as his parent, to dole out the life lessons.  For example, sometimes it’s necessary to instruct the meddling outsider to let the kids work it out. “They are just learning some good negotiation skills that will serve them well later in life — when they become litigation attorneys,” I often jest, indirectly affirming my free-range-ish position about two bickering kids.

Most importantly, I strive to consistently address whatever it was that happened with my children. I would rather them err on the side of always respecting adults and authority figures. When an exception arises, and an unscrupulous person outright bashes my kid disproportionately, I’ll backtrack and explain to the kids why the aforementioned “golden rule” must be totally negated in that particular case.

How do you handle it when an outsider interferes and admonishes your kid in your presence? Do you thank them for bringing an issue to your attention or, do you get so offended you cannot even respond rationally? Do tell!


Darah Zeledon aka The Warrior Mom is a wife, mom of 5, writer, fitness buff and thinker. Her unique voice reveals an experiential and academic knowledge of the social sciences—particularly psychology and sociology. Her empowering messages are born from an appreciation and passion for life and a nonstop quest for truth, reflecting a wisdom and resiliency earned by an array of challenging life experiences. Despite it all, Darah’s personal favorites are the quirky anecdotes exposing the chaotic tug-of-war between motherhood and personal passions. She’s currently working on her memoir—a tragic, yet inspiring story of the last five years of her life entitled: A Lucky Girl. You can read more of her musings at: http://www.warriormom.net

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  1. mytwocents Report

    Hmmm…very good article, thorougly enjoyed reading it, as well as the comments that followed. However, as much as I agreed with the philosophy of “if you’re not his/her parent, than keep your big mouth shut” isn’t always practical, as a few people above have pointed out in detail. Take my situation, for example; I live in low-income apartment housing with my two boys, ages 8 and 10. All of the area outside is common area, for all the kids to play in. Same goes for the small playground area and basketball court. We have been living here for about 6 months, following the seperation of my husband and I. Obviously, the situation is not ideal, but that’s the case for a lot of people. Back to the point, there are a lot of rough kids in this complex, and one boy in particular has a fondness for beating up other kids, and mine are no exception. I have intervened several times when this boy was either harassing my kids, or someone else’s, simply because violence has to be stopped, and if the perpetrator’s parents are not there intervening, then you can bet your butt that I will be. I will absolutely not tolerate another child be violent, and if it is your child, then forgive me in advance, because he/she will most definitely be reprimanded. The flip side of this coin is that I am concerned about what this boy is going through in his personal life, so I have taken the occasion to speak to him one-on-one a few times and explain to him that if someone was hurting *him* I would be just as quick to defend him as I am to defend my own kids. I have tried to talk to him about how we can use our words to hit, and we can use our fists – but neither way is acceptable. Did this boy’s mom ask me to do this? Of course not. Is it necessary? I dunno, I guess each person would answer a little differently. But that’s my take on, for whatever [little] it’s worth, lol! Again, thanks for the great article! Lots of great insight into boundaries – what measure of protection we should offer our children from the “guidance” of other adults, and what “guidance” we should avoid giving to other people’s children! Thanks!

  2. Darah Zeledon Report

    To: Never a Dull Moment: Thank you for the comment on my blog wishing my son a speedy recovery. And, yes, I know exactly what that means. I am a proud member of your tribe!

  3. parenting advice Report

    There are times when you need to scold soemone elses child in front of their parents. If you are being an irresponsible parent what else is a bystander going to do just let them run around them and let them pull on them.. no, of course not!

  4. Darah Zeledon Report

    This is a complex issue and all of your opinions are right and valid. It’s really all circumstantial. There is no blanket response we should adapt. Extremes of any kind are illogical. I think Lalita is experiencing a rather hostile situation with older kids and irresponsible parents–and that is why you seem to feel the way you do. It appears that CandyC is dealing with a very difficult person at her house of worship who has boundary issues and doesn’t respect a parent’s domain. Cbenson is experiencing it all from the opposite end and realizing how trying it is to get through to someone else’s teen. (Good luck with that!) And, Angelica really seems to have the ideal situation because being a family member, you could have a little more backbone in (eloquently) telling her on-the-spot to (please)respect your parenting styles. Never a Dull Moment, I am with you. My 6 y.o. boy is the contrarian of the crew and is not too adept at reading others’ body language. Good emotional intelligence is definitely needed to deal with this issue on a case by case basis.

  5. Never A Dull Moment Report

    What a tough issue this is! We teach our children to start with a baseline of treating adults with respect and listening to what they have to say, responding only when they are done speaking. My second child (6yo) can’t figure out why someone deserves respect just for being older than he is so we stress this especially with him, insisting on yes ma’am or sir as his response. What the heck to do, then, when what that person has to say is really off the mark? We have told him he doesn’t get to make that decision. He needs to say, “Yes ma’am, I’m sorry,” even if he disagrees. If he needs to argue (and it seems this particular child often feels the need) he has to start with “I thought” and not “No” or “But…” Sometimes it drives us both crazy!

    I only have 4 boys to keep track of, and they certainly often do or say things that I miss while attending to someone else (I am very impressed that you manage 5!). I want them to learn to hear criticism from others (deserved and not) and so I have to learn to do that too. All that said, when the adult is over the top insulting or rude, I will TRY to model polite dissent. How close I come is anyone’s guess… Thanks for bringing this into the conversation.

  6. cbenson Report

    My neighbor has two boys,one of which the same age as my 16-year-old. Inevitably, the 16-year-old will be outside playing with a group of neighbor kids and chooses to use foul language which particularly irritates me in front of my girls. I took him aside and asked him to use better choices with words – using a page from my own parent’s advice “Is it true, is it necessary, is it nice?” May sound old-fashioned, and I’m not sure it had any long-lasting effects on is behavior, but I could not sit idly by and enable his actions. It’s very difficult when it’s not your child though!

  7. Lalita Report

    I agree to some degree. I live in a cul-de-sac and some of parents with children believe it is the safest streets for families, which I agree, again to some degree. When children are small, they do not kick or throw as hard and are just adorable when engaging in neighborhood sports. However, when these adorable little children become older, not only are they taller, they hit harder, kick harder, and unfortunately, break other neighbor’s property. The parents of these children offer to pay for damages but money is not the issue, what is an issue their children breaking and destroying property. Some items are replaceable and some are not replaceable. I have had several incidents where there is no adult supervision; therefore, I, as you stated, “the nosy neighbor” is watching to protect her property from inconsiderate children. I have brought it to the attention of the parents but, they just tell their children to be “careful”. Are these children “careful”, no way. In fact, these children continued to kick their soccer balls, throw their footballs, hit their baseballs, and bounce their basketball in our yard and other neighbors’ yards causing more damage. It got to the point, I had to call the police on these children and now I am the villain to these problematic families. I have told them that the street is not a public park and there is a park a mile away. I have told them that their children will not be children forever and should engage with them at parks, recreations, and after school activities. Their response was that they cannot drink alcoholic beverages at the parks.

    I resent the part where you mention, “nosy neighbors, moody cashiers, stressed-out servers and self-righteous repairmen who are all more than willing to butt-in and snarl at your kid if he acts out in public”. I am the nosy neighbor who resents when neighbors’ children act out in public and as I last recall these children are practicing in full force “Conduct Disorders” which may lead to antisocial behaviors. I would also have to disagree about children working out their own problems on someone’s property other than their own property. So, before you go about labeling people “nosy, stressed-out servers, self-righteous repairmen who love to butt-in and snarl at your kid” stop and ask the question, “Why is she/he nosy, stressed-out servers, self-righteous repairmen who love to butt-in and snarl at your kid”? I can say with confidence, they have had the same experiences as I with children with conduct disorders and I am concerned that these children may become antisocial and continue their antisocial behaviors in our society.

  8. CandyC Report

    The circumstances really do dictate my response. I’ve had an ongoing problem with two women at my church. One of them is my son’s Sunday School teacher. When he is in her care, I have no problem with her reprimanding him. However, she and I have disagreed about a particular issue related to my son’s occasional bouts of shyness. It wasn’t really a discipline issue in my eyes. She thought I should FORCE him to participate in the children’s Christmas musical. I think it was better to let him decide if he wanted to participate. It’s not like he’s so shy that he can’t function. He just didn’t want to do it. Not too many people stand up to this woman, and now that I have, she seems to find fault with everything my husband and I do. It’s really irritating. The good news is that, now that my son has seen how much fun the other kids had, he’s anxiously looking forward to the Easter musical.

  9. Angelica Busto Report

    In front of my husband and I, my mother-in law saw fit to smack my 4 year old son in the hand as he reached for a french fry that was in front of her saying he should ask her first. She knows we are using the “nobody hits” aproach with our child (at the suggestion of our therapist) but proceeded to disipline him anyway. I boiled silently not wanting to be disrespectful. It’s not ok and now I know how to address the problem the next time. Thank you



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