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!