Is it ever OK to call out other people’s badly behaved children?

It can be challenging to see a child acting in a way we wouldn’t tolerate in our own children, but parenting expert Dr Mary O’Kane advises a non-judgemental approach

As parents, we have all been there: on a playdate or out with a group, someone has a child who is absolutely wrecking your head and behaving in a way that you would not like in your own kids.

They are mouthy, screaming, saying nasty things to your own kids or being just plain rude. It is a frustrating situation to be in but the big question is: is it ever OK to say something about other people’s badly behaved children?

I will be the first to admit I am strict, very strict, with my daughter Joan on being well-behaved. I joke that I am old-fashioned but really I just want Joan to grow up respectful, kind and aware of how her behaviour can affect others.

Recently, we were out with a group of parents and their kids for a meal. All of the kids are at an age where they have devices or phones but I have always made sure Joan puts hers away and engages with everyone she is with. I want her to feel comfortable chatting to whoever we are with, and to enjoy her time being social. All of the kids managed to put their phone away except for one.

She was glued to it and made zero effort to chat to Joan, who was beside her and tried to strike up a conversation. At first, I didn’t interfere, which is hard for me to do. Then I offered a common ground topic to both girls and nothing happened.

I know this isn’t the worst offence but I really felt the other parent should have spotted that Joan was trying, and by not engaging, her daughter was being rude. If all the other parents and kids agreed devices should be put away, why wasn’t she insisting her child do the same? I know I can be hyper sensitive and overly concerned about what others may or may not be thinking, but I would honestly have been so embarrassed if Joan had behaved that way.

But what can or should we even do in situations like this, or any situation whereby you feel someone else’s child is misbehaving? I am no expert but I do know that after numerous conversations over the years with nearly all of my friends who are parents, we have all been in this awkward and sometimes stressful situation.

I spoke to Dr Mary O’Kane, author of Perfectly Imperfect Parenting and lecturer on early childhood education. I begin by asking her, is it ever OK to say anything to the parent directly?

Firstly she talks about different parenting styles and says: “We are aiming for authoritative parenting — this means you have rules and there are consequences and you are very much in charge — but you also have conversations with your children about your expectations of you their behaviour and you basically explain your methods. This is the ideal approach to take.”

She adds: “We don’t want permissive parenting, whereby parents stand back and don’t intervene or set boundaries. No matter how old the child is, they do need boundaries. This form of parenting, we know after years of research, never benefits the child. By stepping back, you are not supporting the child, and potentially causing problems for them growing up.”

So right off the bat, she made me feel better about labelling authoritative parenting as ‘old fashioned’.

Going back to my original question, is it ever OK to say anything? Dr O’Kane’s answer, in short, is ‘No’. Instead, she says: “Don’t offer unsolicited advice, especially if you know you both approach parenting differently. They will feel the judgement. But what can help is showing interest in their parenting.” Her example is to approach the situation by asking questions about their ways of solving certain reactions and behaviours in their children. Mary feels that this is a good way to connect on parenting.

Long term, this is a great practice to adopt, but I also wanted to know how do you approach things the moment you see the bad behaviour in the child, when apparently their parents do not. A perfect example of this was something a friend of mine experienced last year. Her child became pals with another child who, over a short period of time, became hugely critical of her own child. They constantly commented on what her child was doing, how they were doing it and why it was wrong or dumb. My friend was really struggling with this as she kept waiting for the other parent to intervene and correct her own child.

Dr O’Kane’s advice in this situation is to be vocal in complimenting the positive behaviours of your own child. In this situation you might be heard by the other parent, but also there is the potential that the misbehaving child can learn from your child about good behaviours.

Mary goes on to point out that it is very different when the children are struggling with bad behaviours of other children. If this happens her advice is to put your own child first and remove them from the scenario — that way, you can keep the connection with your friend outside of having your children involved.

She continues by encouraging us never to pass a direct comment on the child who isn’t behaving well with our own children but rather, to comment only on their behaviours. She gives the example of us saying to our kids: “I struggle with the way ____ speaks to you sometimes, have you noticed this?”

She strongly believes we should never say to our children that we don’t like certain friends or we don’t want them to hang out together anymore, as that seldom ever works.

Being in neutral places makes it much more difficult to solve these kinds of situations but Dr O’Kane does point out that all bets are off when other children are in your home. She said: “At this point you can absolutely make clear you have house rules that they must follow. It is, in fact, an opportunity to teach them certain boundaries. You have to be calm — never, of course shout at the child, but explain that we have rules and all the children who come to play have to follow these rules.”

Undeniably as parents we do tend to judge others, whether we are fully aware of it or not. It isn’t actually a comfortable place to be and can prove to put a strain on a relationship. I am sure I have been judged in the past for my approach, and likely in some cases, I was right to be judged. I am far from perfect. Pre-kids, we didn’t have opinions on whether little Jimmy was being too loud in the cafe or whether little Sarah not saying ‘thank you’ was the height of ignorance. But when you become a parent, you do develop clear ideas of what you think is right and wrong and you set your owns standards of what is expected of your own children and how they behave.

Dr O’Kane finishes by saying something I think we could all benefit from hearing: “If you really care about that other parent you will find a way of discussing their style without judgement, with mutual respect, and most importantly, by acknowledging that parenting isn’t easy. You can assertively have supportive conversations, but always be aware that there is a fine line between being supportive in these conversations and being critical.”

Text : Alison Curtis. / Source : Irish Independent