Correcting other people’s kids: It’s not as easy as taking a plastic light saber from a baby.


What’s the deal with Other People’s Kids (and by “Other People” I mean people who aren’t you or me)?  Well, obviously, they aren’t as cute as our kids.  Plus, they’re usually not nearly as well-behaved.  I’ve also noticed that when my kids (and yours, too, of course) mess up or misbehave it’s really just a deviation from their norm rather than a reflection of their deeper character.  Other People’s Kids, of course, are displaying their true colors.  Evil colors.  How do all these Other People deal with such evil little kids?

My kids (who, like yours, are angelic nearly 100% of the time, I promise) were at the park recently.  There was also a good sized group of Other People’s Kids there.  Kids being what they are, a game broke out.  It was a swordfighting, swashbuckling adventure type of game that relied heavily on the use of plastic lightsabers.  I think it was a mashup of Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and total chaos.  There may also have been a hint of Lord of the Flies.

One kid in particular, who I know to be a 3rd grader, was really into the sword fighting part.  Really into it.  He was raining down holy, plastic, light-saberized terror: two hands held high, white-knuckled, swing-it-so-hard-the-sword-bends-itself-around-the-sword-of-the-defender style play.

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And wouldn’t you know it, he was going after my daughter because it also turns out there was a boys against the girls element to the game.  She was backing away – just holding her light saber up in front of her and flinching with every blow.  That’s where my dilemma was.  If it had been my kid swinging away like that at some Other Person’s Kid, I’d have stepped in immediately.  But Other People’s Kids are different.  I didn’t want to embarrass my daughter by stepping in to her game (I wasn’t sure how invested she was in it).  I didn’t want to upset the Other Kid’s Parents (wherever they were).  I didn’t want to be the overreactive, overprotective parent (see this earlier post on parenting to please other parents if you want to see what a problem this is for me).

Mostly, though, I just don’t feel like I’ve got the authority to correct Other People’s Kids.  Of course, in the example above, I had a stake in the game inasmuch as I’m going to keep my daughter safe.  But she wasn’t crying out for help or looking frantically around to find me either.  Also, it wasn’t a real light saber, so that reduced the urgency a bit.  She’s an independent sort who prefers to take care of herself when she can.  Which she did. By dropping her sword and walking away to play another game.

That was my signal that she wasn’t invested enough in playing that she needed me to stay out of it.  The boy picked up her sword and, holding it victoriously over his head ran back toward the boys’ base camp.  Only he happened to go right by me, so I snatched up the sword and said, “Looks like she’s done with the game, so I’ll hang on to this.”

He looked completely shocked and said, “But I won it.”

“I know, but this is my daughter’s sword and I think she’s done with the game.”

If there’s a word for slightly confused and slightly crestfallen at the same time, then that’s what he looked like.  And I looked like the word that describes someone who feels like they just took a toy from someone else’s kid on the playground.  Sheepish?  Ashamed?  Embarrassed?  Furtive?  Interactions with Other People’s Kids are always so awkward.  Look, I’m just telling you what I did, not saying it was the right thing to do…

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This raises a question that I really don’t know the answer to: When, as a parent, is it appropriate to intervene with Other People’s Kids?  Of course, if something is putting any child into immediate physical danger we all have a duty to intervene – often legally and always ethically.  But what about for little things?  Playground disagreements and the like.

I often hear people saying “it takes a village,” but how much village do we really want?  Here’s the crux of the matter.  When it comes to the village, we are the village for Other People’s Kids and Other People are the village for our kids.  When you and I are the village, helping keep Other People’s Kids in line, our morals and methods are spot on, of course! I’m just not so sure about all the Other villagers’ morals and methods.

The logical outcome of this is that you and I can intervene in ways we feel are appropriate when other people’s kids aren’t acting up to snuff, while other people (that guy at the park in a football jersey who’s playing soccer with the kids, one of whom you hope is his; that mom who’s been talking to her friend by the play structure for the last half hour; the grandparent who’s been sitting and reading on the bench near where our kids are playing), well, they need to come and ask us permission before they interact with our kids because, you know, stranger danger and all.

Here’s the part that really weirds me out: my kids, and yours, too, are “other people’s kids” to everybody out there who isn’t us.  I hope responsible parents who share all of my values will kindly and gently correct my kids if they’re being overly-aggressive or are otherwise misbehaving and I’m not aware enough to intervene myself.   I hate to imagine that, when I’m not looking, my kids might be bullies, or even just thoughtless.  I also hate to imagine that some stranger might imagine it’s okay to discipline one of my kids in a way I wouldn’t or correct them for doing something I think is perfectly acceptable.

On reflection, my guess is that the sword wielding Other Person’s Kid at the park isn’t actually a bully.  He’s probably just a decent 8 year old boy who got a little carried away with a game involving plastic weaponry.  His parents are likely to know what a sweet kid he can be.  Most likely, they weren’t hovering over their son because because they’ve raised him right and feel they can trust him to be good.  They’re probably just like you and me that way.

Have you had an experience like this?  How did you resolve it?  Do you have any guiding principles that help you know when to intervene with other people’s kids?  Do you just go on a gut feeling?


5 thoughts on “Correcting other people’s kids: It’s not as easy as taking a plastic light saber from a baby.

  1. Another insightful post! I’ve had a few experiences on both ends. If I had to remind a child, mine or someone else’s, I kept it short, sweet, and sensible.(and this is with my oldest who has a prosthetic eye) The way I’ve seen it, generally, most kids naturally know how to handle themselves emotionally on the playground when another child does something they won’t like. They have a survival instinct that is different from most adults. I think the actions you took were signs of good parenting. Your daughter was able to brush it off and deal with the situation the best way she knew how. She kept the peace and didn’t lose the saber :)

    1. I, like my wife, never have a problem parenting other peoples kids regardless of knowing them or not. The caveat, of course, is if their parents are present and *engaged* with what their kid is up to. Indeed there are shades of grey dependent on the circumstance – like how your kids would react, but I would rather ask forgiveness for intervening than sit idle.

  2. I wonder if hesitance, or lack thereof, to intervene with other’s kids might be related to how different a person perceives their own childhood rules to have been?

    For example, imagine a person whose family didn’t (or doesn’t) belong to the dominant culture. It would make sense that they might be hyperaware of the potential for differences in values and rules from one family to another. That could prompt them to feel less at ease with intervening (and being intervened with) than someone who’s always belonged to the mainstream culture.

    Of course, it could also be that some people are just more comfortable in their own skin and more confident in their own values than others.

  3. I routinely tell kids to stop running (at coffee hour at church, not in the park…). I have asked kids not to swear in front of my little guy (in the park), etc.

    I’m both pretty mean and have worked in schools long enough that that kind of thing is second nature. I also suggest to strange kids that they tie their shoes.

    The flip side of that is I routinely compliment when I see kids being good or doing something well, whether or not I know them.

    It sounds like you handled the light saber situation well. I probably wouldn’t have intervened either unless Cate had been a younger kid.

  4. Oh, I just stay away from correcting other people’s kids…it really makes me very uncomfortable. Probably a combination of my own childhood, plus a few instances of having my own children corrected in ways that I found very displeasing. If there is danger, I will obviously do something. Otherwise, I’d rather remove my children from a situation than cross that line of “correcting other’s kids.”

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