Parenting and Societal Expectations: Disciplining Other People’s Children

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By Chizobam Ekwerike

If you asked my husband to choose between eating lemon and going grocery shopping with a toddler, he’d gladly eat ten boxes of sour lemon. Each time he goes shopping with our toddler, I get an earful about how ‘awesome’ she was at the store. He would go on about how he regrets letting her ride with him and would swear never to go grocery shopping or anywhere else with her ever again. But guess who’s going grocery shopping again with Daddy? 

Kids; they bring out the best and worst in us, whether they are yours or not. As parents, we try to keep them in check by disciplining them when they misbehave. We hope they respond favourably to the discipline and grow up to be responsible and functioning adults. 

Like my husband and I, some parents cannot allow misconducts to slide. Naturally, when our toddler calms down after yet another if-I-don’t-have-this-candy-I’ll-die episode at the store, we enter discipline mode, hoping that she gets the point and self-regulates her emotions. But this is my child. How about disciplining other people’s children? The last time that happened in a restaurant in the United Kingdom (UK), things went downhill quickly.  

Mother scolds her daughter indoors

In November 2021, a video of a Black American teenage girl and a Nigerian woman in the UK went viral on social media. In the video, the middle-aged Nigerian woman tells the uniformed young girl that she is young enough to be her daughter. The young girl asks the woman to stop talking down on her because she is not her parent. The woman asks the girl to shut up; the girl retorts and calls the woman a fool. The visibly angry woman hits the girl and the girl retaliates. 

Accounts on Twitter had it that the woman saw the girl being rude to a store attendant. In an attempt to scold the girl, she lost her cool and a verbal altercation turned physical. The video sparked a debate on social media. On one side of the conversation, people reasoned that the teenage girl was disrespectful and shouldn’t have talked back at the woman, let alone hit her back. On the other side of the debate, people argued that the woman crossed the line when she meddled in a situation she had no business. This group preached that people have no business disciplining other people’s children. To them, it is improper to raise your voice, let alone a finger at another person’s child. Their verdict? The woman should face the full wrath of the law. 

As an immigrant, I can understand why the woman in the video decided to reprimand the girl. Like most immigrants, I believe in the philosophy of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Growing up in Nigeria, it was acceptable for relatives, friends and neighbours to discipline erring children with or without their parents’ consent.  Every adult felt a sense of responsibility towards a child; to instill good values that would help the child become a responsible adult. Parents would often leave their children with relatives or neighbours while running errands or going about their normal business. When a child misbehaves in the custody of relatives or neighbours, both the custodian and the parent will discipline him.  I have realized that things work differently in the western world and not every parent share the ‘it-takes-a-village’ philosophy.  

Although most parents agree that children need discipline, methods vary. Every family has its standards and guidelines. What’s acceptable in one home or culture may not be in another. For instance, the Inuits do not scold a child in an angry tone. Even when the child hits or bites, Inuit parents do not yell. They use storytelling to teach good behaviour.  They share stories that explain the consequences of bad behaviour.  

When you see a child misbehaving, your first instinct might be to get involved because you’re irritated by the child’s antics. It takes willpower not to step in and manage the situation, especially if it’s culturally acceptable to you. But if the parent is with the irate child, your best bet would be to back off. There might be a backstory that you do not know and nobody wants their parenting style to be questioned. 

Act Canadian. Offer a kind word or a we-have-all-been-there smile. Ignore that nagging demon prodding you to scold another person’s child, before you get hit with the how-dare-you-correct-my-child attitude or worse still, a law suit. Have you seen The Slap? The series tells the story of a once-happy family whose lives suddenly began to fall apart because a man slapped another guest’s child at a birthday party. Both the hosts and the party guests went from enjoying grilled barbeque treats in the backyard to being grilled at a courthouse. You don’t want to replay this in real life! 

Man scolds another person’s child outdoor

When it comes to disciplining other people’s children, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. That said, certain actions demand adult intervention, whether the child is yours or not.  It is the course of wisdom to get involved if the misbehavior can cause harm to the child or others or damage something. For instance, if a child keeps undoing his seat belt in the car, you might employ a sterner form of discipline. If you ignore the defiant child, asides from the risk of sustaining an injury in the case of an accident or getting a fine, you may be setting a bad precedent for your child who may be confused by your seeming double standards. 

Another example is when you stop a child from chasing a ball down the road. Even if the child is not yours, a reprimand is in order especially if the child throws a tantrum. For these examples, experts recommend that you discipline the child if the parent is not in sight, but be sure to share a candid narration of events with the parent. 

Even though children are not the best grocery shoppers and might get on your last nerve, most parents would agree that these wonderful humans are one of the best things to ever happen to them. Raising them is a lot of work. Whether it takes a village or a condo, most parents are just trying to get it right without a manual.  

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