Most parents have heard the mantra that “It takes a village to raise a child,” but, still, there’s something extremely private about being a parent. We want to believe that we have our child’s best interest in mind and that we’ve got everything under control. As a result, there’s often a knee-jerk reaction when someone else tries to call us out on our parenting skills—or lack thereof.
But even though the collective body of moms and dads may not be on as bucolic terms as it should, that doesn’t negate the fact that, in today’s era of sexting and cyber bullying, we need all parenting hands on deck. And it is our duty as fellow parents to step up and step in when necessary. Here, we discuss how to examine a situation with someone else’s child to determine whether you should butt in or stay out of it, and how to speak up when you need to in a way that is supportive and not offensive.
Your kids stand in a single-file line at the grocery store, not even daring to look at the rows of candy bars beckoning from the checkout lane. So you’re having a hard time understanding how the mom two rows over can stand quietly by as her 6-year-old collapses to the linoleum in a full-on tantrum. Still, says Sharon Fuentes, the founder and publisher of ZOOM Autism Magazine, it’s not your place to judge. “Often well-meaning parents will make quick judging calls without really knowing what is going on,” Fuentes says. “A child who they think is just spoiled and having a tantrum may be in sensory overload and no longer able to control all the input that is coming through to him, thus causing him to meltdown.”
Maryellen Mullin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, agrees. “You should butt out if you want to share an opinion or a judgment of values,” she says. “Parents are often dealing with challenging behaviors at home and are
already aware of opinions regarding that challenging behavior.”
Still feel inclined to speak up? “Share facts, not opinions,” Mullin adds. “If you decide to share with the other parent, state at the onset that you are sharing information, but acknowledge immediately if you do not have all have the information or context.”
Check your motives.
But before butting in at all, Fuentes advises parents to ask honest questions about why they feel so compelled to comment in the first place. “Parents should really ask, ‘Is the point to just make the other parent feel bad because they may not be handling things the way I would?’” she says. “If this is the case, then I think they need to just shut up, look the other way and keep moving along.”
Ultimately, she adds, sympathy is a great way for an outsider to express concern without completely offending the parent who is probably hanging on to life by a thread. “Many times I have gotten an eye roll or the under-the-breath ‘She needs to learn how to control that child,’ when what I really needed was a sympathetic smile or perhaps a ‘Being a mom can be tough, but you are doing a good job!’” says Fuentes. “Had someone said the latter to me in the moment of crisis, I would have most likely broken out in tears and hugged the stranger.”
Don’t hesitate in serious circumstances.
While it is important to consider the feelings and circumstances of the other parent involved, it is also important for individuals to consider the well-being of the child. And if that child is endangered, you absolutely must speak up. “I have seen so many cruel things done to children by parents, and each time I say something—even if they are complete strangers,” says Monique Prince, a clinical social worker and parenting coach. “Sometimes you have to butt in because you may help a child who needs help. If you get yelled at, it’s okay. You may be the only adult in that child’s life to defend him or her, and it means a lot to the child.”
A victimized child is not the only cause for speaking up. You should also butt in if you witness a situation in which the child is legitimately at risk of doing harm to themselves or someone else. Mullin provides an example: “You read your adolescent’s text message, and a peer has threatened to hurt herself. Yes; reach out,” she explains. “You read your adolescent’s text message, and a peer is using foul language. No; do not reach out.”
Ultimately, it comes down assessing the safety of the situation. And as Prince notes, when someone’s well-being is at stake, the reaction you receive is of secondary importance. “Let’s say a child is involved in a behavior such as bullying via text or Instagram,” says Mullin. “On many occasions, the parents who bravely reached out to other parents concerning an issue have been met with gratitude. This is not always the case, but most parents tend to appreciate other parents’ support.”
Indeed, it is this level of support that can minimize potential backlash from an offended parent.
“Regardless of whether it’s information that a parent wants or needs, parents can instantly become defensive when you’re starting to state something about their child or their parenting that is not all praise or positive feedback,” says Morgan Katcher of ParentingPrep.com. “It’s best to come from a place of ‘I’—as in, ‘I have found,’ ‘What works for me is,’ or ‘I am noticing.’ Starting with ‘You should,’ ‘You need to’ or ‘Your child needs to’ will instantly bring out a parent’s inner-mama bear and put them on the defense.”
But, Katcher adds, “be prepared that no matter how perfect or needed that advice is, there is likely to be a negative or defensive reaction to it. Sometimes it will take later reflection to understand that it was something that they needed to hear.