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‘Who is THIS ONE’S mummy?’

Ellie White reports on the etiquette of telling off other people’s children.

We all know instinctively what to do when we catch our own child being naughty, whether we are from the naughty step school of parenting for younger kids or prefer the take away screen time for older ones. But what’s the right thing to do when it’s someone else’s child behaving badly?

‘Before I had children,’ says Judith Renton, 37, from Manchester, ‘I just assumed any adult could tell off any child. In fact I remember several years ago a friend’s son messing about with adults’ drinks in a pub garden and telling him quite sharply not to – I thought he would knock them all over – and being surprised when his mum shot me quite a look.’

But now that she has her own offspring, she gets it. ‘My own protective element kicks in and if another adult so much as looks at them with an eyebrow raised I am there putting myself in between them, finding out what has happened.’

It’s not because she thinks her child shouldn’t be told off, she insists. ‘He can be quite challenging at times, like any five-year-old. But I am his mum and I should do the telling off. I get quite embarrassed when I think how cavalier I used to be telling off other people’s kids.’

But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, says Kate Orson, author of Tears Heal: How to listen to our children (Piatkus). Orson is a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor, an approach that is based upon understanding the emotions that lie behind a child’s behaviour. She believes in setting limits in a way that builds connections, rather than shaming or blaming a child for doing something wrong. ‘Telling off doesn't have to be done in a harsh way, and actually parenting is much more effective when we are gentle, yet firm at the same time, connecting and being warm – and that makes it much easier when other people’s children are involved.’

Tears HealOrson points out the difference between bad behaviour that has already happened, and bad behaviour that is happening in the moment. ‘With hitting it has already happened, so you might want to say “we shouldn’t hit” but then focus on keeping your child safe and moving away from the situation. Something like pushing in a queue is happening at the moment so you might say something to that child like “I’m sorry you can’t push into the queue so we are going to go back to the front” and then put your child back at the front of the queue. If it was happening over and over again I would go and say something to the parent. Or just take my child out of the situation.’

This approach is at odds with the instinct of many parents, however. ‘I am firmly of the view that it takes a village to raise a child,’ says Louisa Ashton, from London, mum to boys aged three and eight. ‘I am grateful when someone tells my kids off as I acknowledge that I can’t be everywhere at once or see everything that is going on. Even if my child feels they have been told off unfairly they still need to respect the adults around them and their rules.’

Given the different approaches, it seems sensible that for anything longer than a playdate there needs to be a conversation in advance about what is expected from the adults as well as the children. ‘Whenever we have been on holiday with another family I have instigated a discussion about this beforehand,’ says Nora Foster, from Essex. She has three daughters aged 12, 10 and seven and a 14-year-old stepson.

‘Obviously different parents have different rules, but I believe all adults should take responsibility for being the grown up in the room. They have a responsibility to immediately stop dangerous behaviour – if one of my kids was messing about in the pool for example – but also to say something if one was just monopolizing a toy or being a bit mean to another.’

But for some parents, their child being told off by another can make them feel as if they are the one being judged. ‘I have had other parents tell me about my child’s misdemeanors,’ says David Price from Hertfordshire, dad to a 10-year-old son. ‘I always take it seriously and listen, but I can’t help but think they are telling me off, not the child.’

There is certainly an element of judgment in some cases. ‘I do tell children off if they are in my house,’ says Jo Smith from West Sussex. ‘And I dob them in to their parents afterwards in a passive aggressive manner too, saying things like “I do hope I didn’t upset Little X. I’m afraid I did insist he stopped throwing food at our pets and we did have a small falling out over that.” I figure if they don’t bollock them on the spot then I’m never having either of them back; if they do, no harm done and the kid won’t try it again.’

But sometimes, she admits, a hands-off approach can be best too: ‘When my daughter was three there were some “challenging” older kids of about six misbehaving in the soft play area. It was pretty awful, but the parents were just not stopping it. Eventually my daughter got fed up, grabbed one of the perpetrators by the back of his t-shirt and dragged him to the exit loudly shouting, “who is THIS ONE’s mummy?”’

What are your views on telling off other people’s children? Let us know what you think on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #chalkandchat

Chalk & Chat 2018


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