it takes a village

Please Let My Kid Know If She Is Being Horrible

Children playing
Children playing Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

Imagine yourself on a random playground with your random child, aged somewhere between 2 and 12. Now imagine your kid is being a jerk to another kid.

Maybe she throws a light punch or slaps someone. It happens. Imagine for whatever reason that you can’t immediately respond, but there is, nearby, another parent.

What do you want that parent to do? Do you want her to tell your kid to stop doing what she is doing, since we can all agree that she’s being an asshole? Or do you want that parent to mind her own business, to keep her opinions to herself? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but I know which direction I’m leaning in.

Last weekend my husband and I took our daughter, who is 2 years and 4 months old (for those without children, yes, the months still matter at this age) to a birthday party for her school friend, who was turning 2. Among the many adults, there were also about ten small children, ranging in age from 17 months to almost 3. It was a late-afternoon party, held in a large and childproofed room where they couldn’t really do too much damage, so after the entertainment (a French singer!) and the food, we parents sort of just … let them go.

It was so nice, as the mother of an only child, to simply let her run wild with a bunch of other kids as I watched, in a space where the only danger was, well, the other kids. Because the truth is, of course, that 2-year-olds can be a little scroungy. They have short fuses, and they yell a lot. Most of the time this is harmless, but I’ve certainly seen a shove or two, a push here and there. It always amounts to nothing, but in this atmosphere, on this day, I felt a remarkable — and rare — sense of community.

Because all of the kids go to school together and see each other so often, they also know all of the parents better than we know each other. So it seemed like no big deal to wipe someone else’s kid’s nose, hand them a cup of water, or help them off of a chair. The kids accepted this small guidance from other parents because they weren’t strangers at all — they see them all the time.

I didn’t even register this as remarkable, until later — last night, when I saw a friend post on Facebook. He’s the father of older children, maybe 8 or 9 years old, and he recounted a story where he told a stranger’s child to stop spitting. A simple enough request, but it was followed by that stranger telling him off, and not kindly. It resulted in an adult argument: One parent told another’s kid to stop doing something we can all agree is not good, and another parent felt that boundaries were crossed.

Even six months ago, I might have said, “Hell, no, I don’t want other people telling my daughter what to do or not do.” But the reality is, sometimes we can’t be exactly where we need or want to be. Sometimes you really do need to look at your phone for a pressing emergency — just for a second — while your kid is safe on a playground. And in that moment, of course, I think we all agree other parents can and should look out for our own children’s safety.

This has, of course, recently been in the news in the case of the errant 4-year-old who escaped his mother and found himself in the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, resulting in the shooting of a beloved and rare animal. Just last week I saw a 3-year-old bounding through a town square like a bat out of hell toward a busy road as random strangers and parents tried to capture her. Her parents ran after her, screaming her name, but it was a stranger who stopped her. It seems clear that in moments of danger, we all agree to band together; the children are our common property to protect.

But what if there isn’t danger? What if it’s simply a matter of manners or, in the case of a “violent” toddler, a volatile situation? When is it okay to say to a child who isn’t yours, “Please, stop doing that”?

Every parent needs to answer this question for themselves, of course, but it seems that often the answers are more about us and our feelings than what is best for our children. Sometimes the stranger catching your kid as he or she falls off the slide isn’t implicitly judging your parenting; sometimes they’re just helping out.

What any community attitude toward our children requires, of course, is trust in the other people, and a bare-minimum common value set to work from. I’d never go out of my way to correct someone else’s child, but I think I would feel comfortable saying to anyone, big or small, something like, “Spitting isn’t nice.”

Many of us were raised to reflexively respect our elders, with grandparents and uncles and neighbors who could and would tell us what to do without direct empowerment from our parents. But in order for me to feel comfortable with you disciplining my daughter, we need to agree first that what she is doing is inappropriate for some reason. We need to agree on how to tell her to stop. Generally speaking, we need to have some consensus on how to speak to children and what to say.

That sounds like a tall order here today, in the huge and individualistic United States, but I hope for a time when it’s not. It helps to break things down: to find a common group of parents, like the ones I found myself among on Saturday, who can rely on each other to help keep kids safe and calm en masse. It’s not really so much to ask, after all — this is something they cover on Sesame Street. We’re all different, but we have important things in common. We respect each other. We don’t hit each other.

Taking this attitude seems at first to imply a harsher or more firm stance for children. But what it translates to, for me, is that we adults can take more common responsibility for kids at large, because they are valuable as a whole, and not simply because they are our own. It also requires that we set aside — no matter how hard it is — our feeling that any misbehavior or foolishness from our child reflects poorly on us.

We need to accept that if our kid spits on another kid, or is spit upon, it’s not necessarily an epic failure of parenting. Sometimes kids are just assholes, and it might make more sense if we parents occasionally came together against the real enemy: our spitting children.

Of course, any argument is sort of inherently flawed if you make it general enough. Someday, I will almost certainly encounter someone saying something judgy to my daughter that I don’t like. But I think even then it can be healthy to assume people’s good intentions, and to work at creating an environment for ourselves where we don’t feel on edge about our families, who are, after all, unsupported in so many real and critical ways in the U.S.

We don’t need to know everything about one another, or to have the same parenting philosophies. We simply need to recognize that we all do have some common ground: We love our children, and we want them to be safe and happy. That seems like a good place to start.