The Discipline Question

On the flight home from Paris, I had to ask the five-year-old behind me to stop kicking my seat. Several times, in fact, as his oblivious mother flipped through her US Weekly. That little incident reminded me of a recent Wall Street Journal article in which writer Jeffrey Zaslow raised the question of whether it's appropriate to reprimand strangers' children when they misbehave. Seems there's a drastic divide over what people think.

Take Zaslow's three examples ...

Case Number One: Don McCauley, owner of A Taste of Heaven Cafe in Chicago, was fed up with what he saw as a growing problem - mothers allowing their children to run around his restaurant, screaming. Finally, last fall, he posted a sign that read, "Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices."

Many customers praised him - but some offended mothers organized a boycott against his place.

Case Number Two: Also in Chicago. A woman was enjoying her morning coffee at Starbucks. She noticed that a little girl was opening artificial sweetener packets and sprinkling them around the room "like fairy dust."

"Honey, should you be doing that?" the woman asked the girl.

"I beg your pardon!" the child's mother barked. "Don't call my daughter 'honey' - and whatever she does is none of your business!"

Case Number Three: Victoria Juster, a member of the Long Grove, Illinois school board, was driving behind a school bus. Through the back window of the bus, she saw two kids hitting and choking each other. When the bus stopped, she stopped behind it, asked the driver for permission to board, and reprimanded the children. Later, the parents of the students demanded that Juster resign from the school board, saying she had no right to board the bus and scold their children.

"Why are we reluctant to reprimand other people's children?" asks Zaslow.

"Too many parents," he says, "don't want to be told when their kids do something wrong. They are defensive, worrying that any criticism reflects poorly on them. Or they are overprotective, fearing every stranger is a potential predator. Or they are indulgent, thinking they must protect their little darling's self-esteem."

There is an organization called the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, CO that believes children are healthier, happier, and better adjusted when they grow up in communities where other adults, not just the children's parents, take an interest in their behavior. Founder Michael Gurian advises parents to establish teams of five or 10 friends and neighbors to "mentor, admonish, and love" each other's kids.

That's what my parents did. I was regularly praised and criticized by my parents' neighbors, including Mrs. Cronin, Mr. and Mrs. Matuzzi, Sadie (the little old lady who lived down the block), and Al, who ran the local deli. In my young world, teachers, coaches, and policemen were allowed to engage in full-contact disciplinary measures. And strangers felt comfortable yelling at you for any and all civil infractions.

The knowledge that my public behavior was subject to almost universal adult criticism curbed my enthusiasm for bad behavior. But I never felt that my creative impulses were smothered. Nor did I ever feel abused. In fact, were it not for that extra supervision, who knows how I would have turned out?

I'm grateful to all those adults who cared to intervene in my upbringing. I feel sorry for children growing up today in communities where such intervention is seen as intrusive.

Return to this issue of Early to Rise.

posted by M. Masterson @ 4:08 PM,


At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Colin McFerran said...


Great topic to address!

Your observations are spot on! The Gurian Institute, however, does not have a monopoly on this type of 'mentoring'. The Christian church has for thousands of years, has adopted this strategy with love and care of the other as the basis. As you pointed out this reaps benefits and, later on, is almost universally appreciated by those who are guided by such caring people. Pro activity is required by us all who feel this way even if we ruffle a few feathers along the way.

Colin McFerran
Brisbane Australia

At 11:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I just stumbled across it for the first time... and had to add my two cents. The discipline question counts.

But in these kinds of scenarios, you also have to wonder... what's up with these parents?

Frankly, I wouldn't want someone leaning over to tell our kid to stop kicking a seat or sprinkling faux "fairy dust" in a coffee shop. Not because I don't think they have the right, but because I would be embarrassed not to have made a proactive parenting intervention of my own, first.

Somehow, people seem to think that not being apologetic... not being polite... and not being aware of others... is a statement of self-confidence and well-deserved entitlement. Social decency is misinterpreted by these folks as some sign of weakness.


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