People often wonder what to do when they see poor parenting. Should you say nothing, telling yourself it’s none of your business? Or do you speak up for the child’s sake and risk confrontation with that parent? This can be a tough decision to navigate, often with no easy answers.
One consideration is to reflect on the nature of the behaviour you are witnessing. Is it neglectful or abusive? If it is, you may have a legal obligation to act. If the line is finer, as in the case of discipline strategies like time-outs or counting to three, the answer is less clear. There are many parenting choices which may be disrespectful toward a child or inappropriate given the child’s age, yet are within acceptable cultural norms. So what can you do if you decide you need to take action?
Avoid judging those who parent differently
There are times our friends or family may take a different approach when raising their children. For example, you may allow your children to climb up the slide, while another parent insights that his child may only slide down. Or your teen has no curfew while your sister’s kids must be home by 10pm. May be your family has a history of obesity so you keep your kids away from sweets, but your neighbour has declared an open season on sweets.
In cases like these, I find it best to remind myself that everyone has a different perspective. Judgement has no place in healthy relationships. Realise that a right choice for you may be different than a right choice for someone else. You could use this as an opportunity to share your beliefs in a non-threatening way. To the parent who wouldn’t allow his or her kids to climb up the slide, you could say something like, “I know it may look like I’m permissive, but my kids know to watch for others waiting for a turn and I believe it boosts their confidence to climb and explore.”
Subtlety is the key to discussing poor parenting skills constructively
Your sister who insists on the early curfew might believe that kids need to earn their freedom; while you prefer to see your teens prove their maturity by making certain decisions independently. You could tell your kids, “Hey, Aunt Sheila wants your cousins to be home by 10pm. How about you make it an early night so they’re included in the fun, too? You can stay out later tomorrow night.”
Know that just because you parent differently, it doesn’t make you wrong or right. If you feel the need to be right, then explore why that is. Perhaps you lack confidence in your parenting? Feeling judged or judgmental can be a cue for us to do some work on ourselves.
The casual and off-hand approach
Subtlety is the key to discussing poor parenting skills constructively. Find a way to bring up whatever problem you may be facing with your child. This may invite the other parent to open up to a discussion about parenting philosophy. For example: “We’ve been struggling with bedtime lately. We want a way to help her get enough sleep while teaching her to recognise her own sleep cues. We tried this new thing which really seems to be working.” You may not get a powerful, “Aha!” moment, but you may understand each other better.
What to do when other parents lose their cool
Let’s be honest. When a parent yells, shames, or treats his or her child disrespectfully, everyone in the room is affected. If it is uncomfortable for us, it must certainly feel terrible to the child. And by sitting idly by, are we implicitly telling the child that the mistreatment is warranted? The following ideas may be helpful in this situation.
If you know that your best friend is a tough disciplinarian and it is challenging for your family to be around her at times, then maybe getting together without the kids is a better option. You could also plan more relaxing activities such as picnics rather than formal dining. Give yourself [or your kids] a chance for a break during visits so the exposure to negativity is lessened. That way you can maintain your relationship with your friend while minimising those uncomfortable moments.
By being the best version of yourself around parents who parent differently, you are showing them another way
Should you say something?
Unless there is abuse, I do not generally confront someone directly who parents differently than I. In my experience, it is not well-received. Since parenting brings up a lot of personal feelings of inadequacy or feeling judged, it can be tricky to talk about. In addition to that, parents sometimes hold firm to their stance, even with evidence to the contrary, as it would mean challenging their beliefs or facing mistakes their own parents may have made. Unless someone explicitly asks for parenting advice, they are not usually open to listening.
As a parent coach, I work with people who are ready for change. Although they sometimes ask how I can help them change their child’s behaviour, I will gently introduce the idea that the parent needs to change first. One-on-one, I can tell how open they are to the message and ease them through at their own pace. While those who hold firm to their beliefs are not generally interested in philosophical debate about parenting techniques, there are some steps you can take to encourage a shift in their approach.
Modelling: a powerful strategy
At first it may seem as if you are not doing anything to help, but modelling is a powerful tool for teaching. How often do our children do what we do, instead of what we say? Human beings are designed to learn through modelling. By being the best version of yourself around parents who parent differently, you are showing them another way. The language you use with your children, the boundaries that you set and the relationship you share with your child are all useful to another parent. Other parents may be watching and listening. One never knows the impact they may have on another. You may find that other parents become curious to know your secrets. “How do you get your son to eat his vegetables?!” they exclaim. This is a wonderful opportunity to provide a glimpse into your parenting style. Be mindful of their reaction and openness. Refrain from comments that may be interpreted as judgement. Merely speak to what has worked for you.
A final word
We all have bad days and feel embarrassed by our own parenting behaviour. We get tired, overwhelmed or take out some unresolved pain from our own childhood on our kids. When we see another parent struggling, let’s meet them with understanding and compassion first. Treat them as you would a hurting child. Empathise with how hard parenting can be. Help to refill their emotional cup and offer support if they want it.