Is it OK to discipline someone else’s child?

Last week, my nine-year-old son came home from the park sporting a huge shiner.

Pushed over by another child, he’d let it go (the other boy was younger, the “grown-ups in charge” hadn’t seen) but I was outraged. “If I’d seen that kid,” I blustered, “I’d have…”
Done what exactly?

Truth is, we’ve all moved a long way from the days when children played in the streets and childcare was a community activity, with everyone from the old man next door to the lollipop lady on hand to administer a clip round the ear. Disciplining other people’s children now can be a moral minefield: Who gave you authority to step in? At what point is it OK to yell, “PUT JEMIMA DOWN”?
Asking my friends, I found most were comfortable with the idea of disciplining others’ kids – but only if the kids’ dratted parents weren’t around.

My cousin Sasha, 45, is a generous hostess and mum to three sons. She rages inwardly when younger guests reject her home-cooked food. “I want to tell them to eat the sodding risotto – but have to bite my lip if their parents are there.” What she won’t swallow, however, is cheek: admonishing one boy recently – “don’t talk to your mum like that!” – she received a look of exasperated gratitude from his mother. So why didn’t his own mum tick him off? “Embarrassment,” says Sasha. “She couldn’t face a public showdown with her child.”

Sasha sympathises. When out with her own boisterous boys, she tries to present an image of family harmony. In the school playground at pick-up time, however, she considers parenting a common policing job. “I’ll always let another mum know if I’ve had to tick off their child. Most say, ‘Well done! Where is the little sod?’” Not all mothers are so grateful. My pal Kate, 37, recently witnessed the mother of all rows outside her daughters’ north London primary. Berated for some misdemeanour, a small boy called for his mum (on his Nokia). Two minutes later, a screech of brakes heralded the arrival of maternal back-up. Avenging Mum subsequently engaged Chastising Mum in a heated debate on parenting, which concluded with a punch to the face.

This might be an extreme case, but it comes as no surprise to Elaine Halligan. As director of The Parent Practice, an organisation delivering practical solutions to enable parents to bring out the best in their children, Elaine believes “it is not OK to threaten, berate, criticise or hit anyone else’s child – or indeed your own”. Discipline should only be administered “with the intention to try to help children learn”. This is never going to happen if we force a confrontation with another parent – or an empty apology from their child.

My lawyer friend Sally, 39, knows all about the latter. Mother to two-year-old Jake, she was recently “set upon” by another mum at a toddler’s tea party. Jake had apparently scratched this woman’s daughter. “Obviously I apologised,” says Sally, “but the woman insisted Jake apologise too – even when I pointed out he couldn’t yet talk.” So Sally dragged Jake back to the sobbing girl, whereupon he cheerfully scratched her again.

For Sally, the inference was clear – it wasn’t her child at fault, but her skills as a mother…

Continue reading at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s