​Is It Ever OK To Tell Off Someone Else's Child?

10/10/2014 15:10 | Updated 20 May 2015

​Is it ever ok to tell off someone else's child?

Telling other people's children off. Is it ever OK?

Not in my view.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times my kids have been told off by another parent, but I was surprised by the strength of my feeling on the matter recently when I watched it happen to a friend's child.

My friend's little girl had stepped out of line - there was no denying that - but promptly found herself on the receiving end of a stern word from the parent of another child who was present during the incident.


​My friend and I were shocked; we felt the other mother had flouted an unwritten rule of parenting; Thou Shalt Not Tell Off Another Person's Child.

Had the other parent drawn my friend's attention to her child's inappropriate behaviour - admittedly we were distracted at the time - then my friend would have happily addressed it accordingly, and probably even thanked the other parent for intervening in what could otherwise have escalated into something fairly serious.

But another parent taking it upon herself to challenge my friend's child directly?

That was a step too far. My friend felt her role was being usurped and thus as well as criticising her child's behaviour without checking all the details first, the other parent was - even inadvertently - casting aspersions on her own parenting skills.

And as any parent will attest, feeling judged by other parents is something few of us take kindly to.

I'm not alone in thinking it's downright wrong to scold another child - my friend Sharon says she hates doing it, but has done so in extreme situations when required - and feels extremely uncomfortable if anyone else ever sees fit to tell her children off.

But other friends say they wouldn't think twice about stepping into another parent's shoes to discipline a child, particularly if it's an issue of safety, and the other parent is not willing or able to intervene themselves.

Sara, mum of two, has a tried-and-tested strategy for gently admonishing other people's children if she feels the situation calls for it - usually when the parent's back is turned and the child is in danger.

"If someone else's child (I'm talking two to 10-year-olds) is doing something dangerous then I usually say, 'Oh, do you think your mum or dad would be happy with that? They might worry you'd hurt yourself,'" she says.

"If the parents see it but aren't reacting and it's something like climbing the barrier on a busy road outside school, as happens often, then I can't help myself. I'll say something like: 'Oh, look, I bet you worry they'll fall off there right into the road!' That normally wakes them up."

But intervening in a child's behaviour as a matter of safety is one thing; we'd all surely like to think that others might say something if our children's actions could put them in danger while our attention is diverted.

But what about telling off another child when their actions upset or hurt your own children?

"I try to encourage my kid to stand up for themselves," Sara says. "I'll say something like 'Are you enjoying playing like that? No? Tell them how you do like to play then,' and if that doesn't work I'll take my kid away. When that doesn't work I'll look for the parent and politely remind them that my kid ain't nobody's punch bag!"

I share the sentiment that the appropriate course of action if another child's behaviour is unacceptable to you is to take the matter up with the child's parent - never with the child.


So why does the thought of someone else telling my child off bother me so much? Because telling off someone else's child only seems appropriate if we share a similar approach to parenting and the same values - and that's a pretty huge assumption to make before you leap in with a wagging finger.

I'd never presume to tell another child off for swearing, for example. I enforce a swearing ban in our house, but expecting other kids to adhere to that or face a telling off on neutral ground like the playpark surely risks sending the signal that I'm judging other parents whose approach to swearing may differ from mine.

Similarly, I've heard other parents admit to telling off other people's kids as a way of keeping those kids in check, particularly if that kid happens to be the class bully or someone who has upset their own child in the past.

Tempting as it might be to put a little tyrant in his place with an intimidating glance or a stern word, I just don't think that's appropriate behaviour for an adult to convey to a child.

A good test for whether it's appropriate to admonish another person's child is whether you'd say or do exactly the same thing in the presence of their parent. If not, think twice.

The only scenario I can think of in which I'd feel OK about another person telling my child off is when my child is a guest and I'm not there to discipline unruly behaviour for myself.

But even then, I can't think of a time when my child has had to be told off. And if they did, I'd trust any friend who was looking after my children to discipline them appropriately, and in line with my own values and parenting approach. That's a world away from someone else's parenting wading in during a playpark fallout.

I don't mind admitting that I also feel uneasy about the idea of another adult exerting their influence over my child without my consent.

Ultimately it's mine and my husband's job to tell our children off, and no-one else's. The act of doing so takes place within a trusting, loving relationship, which won't necessarily be the case if another parent sees fit to scold my kids.

Being disciplined by a loving parent is one thing; a stern ticking off from an unknown adult is quite another, and the two should never, ever be confused.

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