Originally published: 05.06.16
I was on BBC Radio Tees last week discussing whether it’s ever OK if other people discipline your child (you can listen here, from about 01.29.00) , which made me think we’ve come full circle: in my parents’ generation it went without saying that it was everyone’s duty to do so. ‘Bobbies on the beat’ would give kids a clip round the ear if they were caught stealing apples or being ‘cheeky.’
It’s surprising to me that some people have such strong views that you should never discipline another child, until they state the reason: “because THAT’S THE PARENTS’ JOB” and then I get it. Parents these days! No authority!
To inject some nuance into the discussion, there’s a huge difference between different parents, some of whom I have great sympathy for and some of whom I don’t.
To take that last group first: we all know (don’t we..?) the parents who watch fondly as their child creates havoc; even if that child is hitting another, they never do anything because their child is so special and can do no wrong. I have always really resented having to discipline the child of this parent. I dread being in an enclosed space with them, and especially when it’s my house. I have had a child plunge her whole hand into the middle of my child’s birthday cake while the mother looked on fondly.
In public, they are the parents on the train whose kids are running and screaming up and down the aisles, smearing chocolate and ice-cream onto you as they go, the ones that stop and ask you demanding questions with all the entitlement and expectation of the child who’s never been told ‘no,’ as you try to bury yourself in a book and send out body-language signals: ‘do not disturb.’ To those parents: no I don’t find your children as cute as you do, I am not sitting here thinking “how wonderful it is that this child has the confidence to talk to adults, and what good parenting has produced this precocious creature.”
So, no sympathy towards these parents, they are like the owners of the slobbering bull mastiff on the beach, the one that launches itself onto you, springboards off your back and starts digging furiously in the sand next to your face, while the owners look on proudly, expecting you to find its antics as cute as they do. When I observe parents like this I agree with the ‘parents should discipline their own children!’ crowd: yes they should, to give us all a break and to keep friends with other parents.
On the other hand…I have great sympathy for the harrassed mother on the train, the one who has come prepared with colouring books and little snacks and is doing her absolute best to contain the energy of her toddler while she attempts to discreetly breastfeed a screaming baby. She’s TRYING. She knows exactly how annoying her children are and she does her best not to inflict them on the rest of us. She shoots us apologetic looks as she does everything reasonable that should work, and for this mother I will put down my book and try, from across the aisle, to engage her baby with peek-a-boo games to give her a break. In this case, I think it’s unfair of other passengers to keep shooting the mother looks of barely concealed fury and judgment.
It’s hard disciplining little children in public, you feel exposed and watched and judged at the same time as having higher expectations of your children’s behaviour than normal, which they may not yet realise. If it’s your first child you lack confidence. You’re afraid of being too hard and incurring the wrath of passers-by who think you’re a child-abuser, or being too soft and getting those looks from other people which communicate clearly they think you’re hopeless and indulgent.
This is when we need older, wiser people to give us a hand. I’m thinking of those situations when a kindly older lady or gentleman smiles at your child but says firmly ‘That’s a bit loud isn’t it?’ or something like that. Have you ever observed in those situations how a small child will stop in his tracks, look at the stranger in horror and bewilderment, burst into uncontrollable sobbing, look around wildly for your support, and then stick close to you and continue the trek through town in a subdued and thoughtful manner? You see, it doesn’t take much: a word from a stranger can have a big impact on a child.
When you’re in a public space, whether it’s on the train, in the supermarket or in a restaurant, it benefits children if other adults have a quiet word when their behaviour is unsociable; it reinforces what the parents tell them about appropriate behaviour in public, makes a child aware of the wider society and ultimately gives them a sense of being ‘held’ within a wider framework than just the family.
I hope that all the older, wiser people who know about kids would never feel afraid of interjecting in that way when they see a parent struggling to discipline their kids in public. I’m getting to the age where I may start doing it myself. You have been warned.
Stephanie Davies Arai: I’m a feminist, mother of four and I blog about how we communicate with our children. Very interested in cultural influences and neuroscience. @cwknews