Dear Brat Whisperer,

Today my son and I had a poor public experience.  He was playing nicely in our local mall play center when all of the sudden I saw a little girl purposely kick him. I, the parent, went to make sure my son was OK and to ask the girl to play nicer. Minutes later, the same girl, poked him in the eyes. I went to comfort my son. Once he was calm, he went back to play. Immediately, the same girl made a repeated offense. Upset that my son was attacked multiple times by the same child, I decided to leave the play area. In my disappointment of this child’s behavior, I stated out loud,” I do not know where your parent is but your behavior is unacceptable!” After I proceeded to grab my son’s shoes I was approached by the parent. The mother asked her daughter to apologize to my son and she then said sorry to me. My response was simple. “Ma’am, this has happened more than once. I now have to leave.”

Moments later I noticed redness in my son’s eyes and he complained his eyes hurt. I understand kids play rough but I believe this was the result of poor parenting.  If the mom was there watching this the whole time, why didn’t she correct her daughter the first time, or the second time?  It’s frustrating to feel as if I can’t bring my well-behaved son to a public play area for fear of what poorly parented children might do to him.

Brat Whisperer please help me understand this malfunction!  What would you have done? – Madtown Mom


Dear Madtown Mom,

That’s a real bummer of a situation.  You found yourself having to parent your own child, someone else’s kid, AND the mom just so that your son could play!

The reason I feel so passionately about subject of bratty kids is that, without corrections, bratty kids lead to spoiled adults who are destructively self-consumed and lower the quality of life for us all.  The play area is the perfect example of this.  A common space created fro everyone to enjoy that you were unable to enjoy with your son because another parent was not monitoring (or didn’t care) to make sure that her child adhered to basic levels of consideration and common courtesy.  The situation in which you found yourself was unpleasant with no great options.  You could admonish the child who was hurting your son, which would raise the ire of her parent.  You could ask her mother or father to actually parent her which, again, would make for an uncomfortable situation.  Or, you could do as you did and choose to leave, denying your son the pleasure of playing for fear of bodily harm!

No child is an angel and luckily most parents are responsible enough that when they see their children doing something wrong in a public play space, they try to correct it.  Where some parents have work to do is making the connection between what happens in the public space and what they allow to happen at home.  Most kids are not going to behave by two different sets of rules.  If at home they are allowed – expressly or implicitly – to yell, snatch things, not say thank you or please, and throw tantrums without consequence, they’re not going to change that behavior once they’re in a public space.  For these parents, public embarrassment sometimes the only motivation to correct their child’s behavior.

I, like just about every parent I know, have found myself in a similar situation from time to time.  Usually I take either the Big Brother or the, “Kill ‘em with kindness” approach.  Most of the time, you can spot the hellion kids a mile away.  They stand still for a minute, surveying the play area to decide what havoc they can wreak next.  They’ll stare down you’re innocent kid while sizing up whether or not he or she is susceptible to being bullied and pushed around.  Then, they’ll come over to make their first move.

In the kill ‘em with kindness approach, I’ll say hi to the kid, ask their name, that kind of thing.  If the parent is paying attention at all and not completely Missing In Action (MIA), they’ll usually come over at that point to make sure I’m not trying to abduct their child.  At that point, we’ve established a relationship.  As a result, the other parent will most of the time become much more conscious of what their child is or is not doing and own their responsibility to monitor the child’s behavior for fear of looking bad in front of another parent.  With the child and parent now on high alert, the likelihood of my kid being bullied or harmed goes down significantly.  The first sign of a wrong move and I correct it straightaway with a sort of implicit permission from the other parent because we’ve already established a relationship…we’re “co-parenting” at the play area.  A little Machiavellian yes, but it’s effective.

I save the Big Brother approach for situations when I know my kid is likely to be beaten to a pulp by some bratty little bully without close and constant monitoring.  Again, usually this situation becomes clears within a short time of arriving at the play area.  In these situations, as soon as the hellion kid approaches my kid, I let them know the ground rules for how we’re going to play.  I am very stern about it because you can always lighten up if you start out stern, doesn’t work so well the other way around.  The moment I see an infraction, I correct it.  If the MIA parent gets his or her feathers ruffled by witnessing me tell their child what to do, that’s great they can come over and do it themselves. But the MIA parent gets the message loud and clear: “One way or the other your child gonna be parented, here and now.  The only choice is whether it’s gonna be you, or me.”  At that point, I don’t care if they’re reluctantly parenting, I just care that they do it at all.  If the other parent chooses to leave the play area because they don’t like me telling their kid what to do, great.  The playground reign of terror can end and the other kids can play in peace.

There are undoubtedly times when nothing will work short of getting into an argument with another parent or walking away from the play area.  But I have found that most times, one of these methods produces good results because what you are doing with either approach is helping the other parent to become more conscious of what’s going on and reminding them of their responsibility for their child’s behavior.

Again, none of it makes for an ideal situation but we start from where we are.  Good luck and happy trails to you and your son!

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