Would you tell off someone else’s child?


A very modern dilemma: You’re in your local sandpit, drinking your first cappuccino of the day, enjoying the early morning sunshine (there are benefits to being up on a Sunday morning after all) when you notice that a child is deliberately throwing sand into your child’s face. And then she does it again. And again. And yup, again. Do you a) mutter something under your breath, sip your coffee and do nothing in the hope that the child’s parents will appear and tell the little nightmare off? b) sigh wearily, pick up your child and head off to the swings c) put your coffee down, take matters into your own hands and tell the charming little blighter to stop?

Sandpit politics are, to put it mildly, a bugger. The question of whether you should tell off someone else’s child is as fraught with tension as a night in a restaurant with Justin Bieber and Orlando Bloom. Everyone has their own way of doing things, everyone has their caveats and everyone has an opinion. It was this issue (albeit in a heightened form) that was raised by Christos Tsiolkas’ brilliant best-selling novel The Slap, in which a man slaps a badly behaved 3-year-old at a family bbq. And while few people would ever condone hitting a child, the question of whether you can – or can’t – tell someone else’s child off is an extremely divisive one, to say the least.

In one corner (and it can feel like a verbal boxing match when discussed with other parents) there are people like Milla who “have no hesitation in intervening when other children are behaving inappropriately.” While on the other side of the ring, there are mothers like Jo who, “think it’s definitely the other parents’ responsibility and would never tell another child off or be happy if someone reprimanded mine.”

“I’m very much of an ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ kind of mentality,” explains Milla, who has 3 girls aged 6, 5 and 2. “Children are all just learning and I think it’s good for them to know that adults generally will intervene when necessary. For example, if another child was pushing mine/throwing sand, I’d simply step in and say ‘no thank you’ to the child if it looked as if the parent wasn’t going to. But I wouldn’t bother if neither child seemed bothered, or if it was just boisterous fun. And similarly, I wouldn’t be upset if another adult did that to mine as long as it was done in a similar manner. If I saw a child about to do something that could harm them/another child, I’d step in too – if we all keep an eye on our children, they’ll be better off.”

Hannah, mother of 2 boys agrees, “To a certain extent if the banter, name calling or chaotic rugby tackling on the trampoline is mutual I leave the situation, observe from a far and allow them to enjoy.  However as soon as things escalate and one child is being singled out or is no longer “in the game” but has become “the game” I will step in and strongly put across a message that this is not acceptable.” She points out – and I believe this too – that “children do not automatically realise when situations are out of control or they are victimizing someone. Children need intervention and boundaries put across in an informative and productive manner.  The same would happen in the work place or at school so why should a play situation be any different?”

And yet, not everyone agrees. Jodie, mother of a girl (5) and a boy (1) would never tell off another child and thinks that parents are often too fast to get involved. “Sometimes I think its best to let them fight things out themselves. Especially when they’re old enough to understand.” Similarly she’d be unhappy if someone stepped in and told her daughter off if they thought she was out of line.

Of course, there is the question of what constitutes ‘telling off’. A gentle, but firm, ‘please don’t do that because…’ is very different from an adult shouting at a child, which is where parents like Milla draw the line, “it’s all about context. I’d be very cross if an adult shouted at my children or told them off in an aggressive or negative manner over something that was probably a fairly minor transgression.”

Similarly, it depends on the ages of the children involved and what is actually happening. I can see why someone might feel that two 5 year-olds can sort something out themselves, but a 4 year-old deliberately pushing over an 18-month old, then no way – I’d be stepping right in.

And what about when the shoe is on the other foot? When asked most people said they’d be happy for a friend or stranger to step in and tell their child off if they weren’t around to do it themselves – depending of course, on the manner in which it was done. “I wouldn’t be upset [if someone told my son off] if my child was hitting or hurting another child, which I’m afraid has occasionally happened,” says Sophie. “Though I suppose if the stranger was angry or shouting at them I would be – but this has never happened.”

For the record, I am in the ‘happy to step in’ camp simply because I feel how else can children learn right and wrong unless shown by an adult? It would (or should) happen at school, so why is the park/playground any different? Although, as my children have got older, I have realised that there is a fine line between stepping in and giving them the opportunity to stand up for themselves – even if it doesn’t always end well.

So, what would I do in the sand throwing situation? Well, I’d wait for a parent to appear and if they failed to do so, then I would step in, in the calmest manner possible. But, what would you do?  Would you tell off another person’s child? Would you act differently if it was a friend’s child or a random stranger’s? Would you tell off a child you saw acting badly if it wasn’t your child who was in the firing line?

Do please leave a comment – We’d love to know!

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  • Reply
    August 7, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    I think there is a huge difference between “intervention” and “telling off”. I think that it is important to intervene in any sort of victimisation, unfair play and bullying regardless of whether your child is in the firing line or not. But this does not need to be in the form of yelling or belittling another child. Perhaps it is the area I live in (where young children are taken to playgrounds and left to their own devices, with the parents sitting drinking coffee with their friends, oblivious to the actions of the darling son/daughter) but I often feel the need to intervene on behalf of another child, and it has happened as many times to protect a child as to chastise them, and frequently to a child other than my own. And often I have seen the discipline from the (absent/coffee drinking) parent being many, many times worse than that which the initial incident warranted and sometimes I wonder whether parental guilt doesn’t play a part in that somewhere…? Young children need looking after in public play situations, and by young I mean pre-school and probably even up to Yr1, because often they simply don’t understand that what they are doing is hurting/upsetting/alienating. You cannot expect a 3/4/5 year old to logically and reasonably fight their own battles, and neither should they. Boring as it may seem, a child needs to be supervised in a public play environment and there are too many parents out there who think this is not the case. x

    • Reply
      August 8, 2014 at 11:45 am

      Hi Carol,
      I completely agree. How can young children understand the concept of right and wrong without being helped? And you’re right – there’s a big difference between ‘intervention’ and ‘telling off’ – done the right way, it can only be a good thing.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Reply
    July 17, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    I have been in a situation where my boisterous 4 year old boy was acting silly at a playground and annoying other children – while I was tending to my 2 year old and 6 month old other children at the same time….my husband who worked away had been gone for 2 weeks and a break at the playground was what we all needed. Another mother came roaring up to me in a raised voice with high emotion telling me off about my 4 year olds behaviour – I was mortified and so embarrassed as it was loud enough for the entire playground to hear. I felt so worthless that I had done yet another thing wrong in motherhood.

    I grabbed my children and cried all the way home. Clearly I should have been on top of his behaviour – that was my fault and there is no excuse, there was just only so much of me to go around at the time. If only we could all help each other as mothers – in a gentle loving and kind way. Help the little people know whats right and wrong in the same way too and things will come good with just a little more understanding.

    It was a moment that I will be telling my grandchildren of thats for sure. I have since been in situations where I’ve seen mothers with multiple children struggling with a lively one and from learning from my own playground embarrassment experience – i have stepped in and either chatted friendly with the mum to say you’re doing a wonderful job today, or somehow distracted the little one in a happy way. They have always said how much it meant to them to have someone understand and to be supportive.

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