INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
7 FEBRUARY 2002
Dealing with other people's children can be extremely tricky
'I'll tell my mum'
One of the regular visitors to our house is an appallingly behaved boy whose mother is a great friend. The child snatches toys, has tantrums every time he doesn’t get his own way and refuses point blank to do anything his parents ask him.
My husband itches to tell him off, maintaining that he has a right to dictate standards in his own home. After all, much of our desire to discipline other people’s children is born of the need to show consistency to our own — how can we justify insisting that they sit at the table if we let their friend Jake run around the house while he is eating?
But although I agree with my husband, at the same time I whisper desperately to him to stop. For to discipline another person’s child is implicit criticism, tantamount to saying that the parents are doing such a bad job that you have to step in and do it for them — a short cut, indeed, to ruining the adult relationship.
The question of what you do — or don’t do — about badly behaved children becomes even more complicated when they are strangers’ children. Turning a blind eye may seem pathetic, yet the risks of getting involved were graphically illustrated last week by the court case involving a man who was stabbed to death by a neighbour during a dispute over children playing football at the side of a house.
According to Andrea Clifford Poston, an educational therapist and the author of The Secrets of Successful Parenting, the reason why the issue of other people’s children is so thorny is because discipline is seen as negative. In fact, she says, it is an act of love: “It is giving the message that an adult cares enough to notice what you are doing and try to help you find a better way. The purpose of discipline is to protect the child, ensuring safety — both physical safety and emotional wellbeing. Good manners, for example, are simply the skills to be successful with other people.”
Nor should we assume that a child objects to discipline, says Asha Phillips, a child psychotherapist and the author of Saying No: Why it is important for you and your child. “Often it can be a relief to a child to be told off when he or she is misbehaving. Most children don’t like misbehaving — as opposed to just being mischievous — and if you make the boundaries clear to them kindly, reassuring them that you still like them, they can be very grateful.”
Grateful they may be somewhere deep down, but they don’t necessarily show it and may end up howling until their mother appears and they can tell her how nasty you are.
But there are practical steps you can take to avoid discipline leading to a falling-out between the adults, too. When the other parent is present but appears to take no notice of their child’s bad behaviour, your best bet is to remove your own child, saying something neutral such as “they seem to be getting overexcited. Let’s try again tomorrow”.
Phillips recommends that where there is a reciprocal arrangement — ie, your child goes to their house and theirs comes to yours — it is useful to discuss ways of reacting with the other parent before the issue arises. “Tell them that when your child does such-and-such you usually remove them from the room, or whatever, and is it OK if you treat their child the same?”
This is all very well, but in reality many of the children who have tea at your house are schoolfriends whose mothers you have merely nodded to at the school gates. In this case, the way to avoid the howling child syndrome, suggests Clifford Poston, is to address the group rather than singling out the other person’s child and further alienating them. For example, say, “If one of you keeps pushing the others over, none of you will be able to enjoy the game”. If you follow this with something like, “Why don’t we all go inside and have a drink?” this allows the misbehaving child back into the group.
With teenagers the situation is different, warns Phillips, and it is usually inappropriate to discipline other people’s teenagers: “This is better done through your child, who can tell his or her friends the house rules such as no drugs, loud music or whatever. If the guest doesn’t abide by these, you tell your child that that particular friend is not welcome and let them deal with it, rather than embarrassing them in front of their friends.”
Clifford Poston recommends that as soon as children are old enough, you should teach them how to deal with distressing situations themselves before they reach a point where you feel you need to intervene. But you need to be careful how you label good and bad behaviour, she says: “We judge behaviour by comparison — one child is badly behaved because they behave worse than yours, another well-behaved because they behave better than yours. But it is vital to remember that all behaviour is communication. A child who doesn’t have the language to express a problem has to fall back on behaviour, and the child who is disruptive in your home may be trying to tell you that he or she feels shy or insecure or unhappy.”
Disciplining strangers’ children on the street must also be handled skilfully, says Clifford Poston: “Sadly we have to gauge very carefully nowadays when it is safe to intervene or when it would be safer to call a third party — a parent, a head teacher, the police. But if you decide to intervene, there is no point in barging in with a “How dare you . . .” as you need to defuse rather than ignite the situation. “It’s a pity you are doing that because . . .” sounds very trite but can work as it invites the children to consider the consequences of their actions, which can be very hard for children who have not been taught to do this.”
When calling in a third party is the only option, The Noise Abatement Society suggests contacting the local authority: “We don’t advise anyone to tackle the children directly because the situation can quickly get out of hand, as this current court case shows,” says a spokesman.
“First, you should always try visiting the parents — not to threaten them but to ask them politely to sort out the problem. If it does turn nasty, you should walk away immediately and get proper advice — the environmental health office is one of the best places to call, and although calling the police sounds draconian, they will usually listen sympathetically and give good advice. Even if a crime is not taking place, often the sight of a police car is enough to disperse a situation which is in danger of turning nasty.”
Fay Williams, a former teacher from London, remonstrates frequently with youths whose noise at night prevents anyone from sleeping. “I always say please and I am always polite,” she says. “If you treat children as though they are dangerous and subhuman, that’s the kind of response you will get. Of course, being polite is no guarantee that they won’t tell you to ‘eff off’, but it is less likely.
“I’m sure it is the teacher in me which makes me act, but it seems that only teachers and parents even notice children these days — as a society we have given up responsibility for children in general.
“On the Tube I eventually asked a group of kids busily defacing the adverts with felt pens if they didn’t think they were making the place look even uglier — rather than just shouting at them — and they stopped what they were doing and looked sheepish. But what made me much angrier than the kids’ behaviour was that, in a crowded carriage, not one other adult said a word. They just buried their heads in their newspapers and pretended not to notice what was going on.”
Phillips believes that a stranger should be able to intervene, “although in these days of heightened danger it is understandable that they don’t,” she says. “But not intervening gives out two messages — that society doesn’t care what you do, which is sad, and that kids can get away with whatever they like, which is frightening.
“Intervening, on the contrary, reassures the miscreant they do have a place in society, which is what they want to hear. Anyone behaving in a destructive way really wants to be stopped.”
By Miranda Ingram
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