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Stranger discipline: Does it cross the line?

Sometimes you are out in public and your kids are acting more unruly than you would like. You are doing your best to keep things under control when a stranger feels the need to step in and discipline your kids. Or worse, you are OK with your child’s behavior but a stranger scolds them anyway. When does a little discipline from strangers cross the line, and how should you respond to the situation?

My own experience with a stranger disciplining my child happened in the supermarket checkout line. As the cashier rang up our items, my 14-month-old daughter was innocently playing with the pen attached to the credit card machine. She wasn’t chewing on it, or throwing it, or otherwise being unruly, so I didn’t think twice.

Without warning, the cashier snatched the pen out of my toddler’s hands, threw it across the checkout stand and proceeded to yell at my toddler, and then me, for allowing her to play with it. I was so taken aback by the whole situation that I chose to say nothing and just left the store. Ever since that day I have wondered, what is the best way to handle a stranger disciplining your child?

Should you say nothing?

Saying nothing is the approach I took, and I still wish I had spoken up. Vanessa, mother of two in Minnesota, agrees and wishes she had responded to a stranger who lashed out at her son. Her then 3-year-old son was playing at a mall play area when a nearby mother placed her young infant on the floor. As Vanessa’s son ran past, the baby fell over, and the woman scolded Vanessa’s son calling him a name. Vanessa recalls that they left the play area right after that incident, but she still wishes she would have said something to that stranger: “I hate conflict with strangers and I don’t believe in talking to people the way she talked to me, but it left me feeling trampled on.”

Should you speak up?

Brandy Roth, mother of two in Oregon, decided to speak up when a stranger overstepped by attempting to discipline her daughter. While standing in line at the grocery store, Roth’s 4-year-old daughter June was singing a song to herself when an older woman in line behind them told June she was being rude and harshly instructed her to stand still and be quiet.

Roth was taken aback and asked the stranger not to speak to her daughter. “I felt like she was judging me for what she took for bad behavior. In her eyes I was parenting wrong and she just corrected June instead of me,” Roth says. She chose to speak up and respond to this stranger in an effort to make it a learning experience for her daughter. Roth says it was important to her to show her daughter not to let people she doesn’t know influence who she is, and that’s why she responded the way she did.

Is it ever OK to discipline someone else’s child? >>

Can you stranger-proof your kids?

When it comes to helping your children interact with the world, sometimes a little preparation goes a long way. Crystal Heinecke, mother of five in Arizona, has given her kids the tools to hold their own in this type of situation. She shares this story of her son standing up for himself: “A lady in line at Costco started lecturing 5-year-old Mattox about being ‘way too big’ to suck his thumb. She even told him it was going to make his teeth ugly. I think he came back with a better response than I could’ve hoped for. He told her, ‘My mom says I’m amazing, and people shouldn’t make me feel bad.’” 

Heinecke says that she tries to empower her kids to have the confidence to stand up for themselves in these situations. She adds, “I know the reality is that I won’t always be around to defend them when these things happen. I want to instill in them a great sense of self-worth and self-love so they aren’t as hurt by peoples’ harsh words to them.”

Is it possible to parent without punishment? >> 

When does it go too far?

You may or may not welcome the input of strangers when it comes to your children, but a stranger physically disciplining your child is never OK. While shopping with her family, Danielle Lynn, mother of four from Iowa, experienced the extreme side of a stranger getting involved. Lynn’s 22-month-old son reached out to touch the hand of another child in the store. Lynn reports that the child’s mother then “slapped his hand and called him naughty.”

Security was called but ultimately Lynn decided not to push the issue any further. “My children had already heard me be upset more than they needed to. Once we got to the car I talked to them and explained that hitting is wrong and sometimes even grown-ups make mistakes,” Lynn said.

How would you respond to a stranger disciplining your child?

More on discipline

Positive discipline: Why time outs don’t work
Teaching kids self-discipline
When parents disagree on discipline

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