Correcting An Unfamiliar Child In Public

Dear Annie,

fountainThe other day while walking my dog in a public park I saw a boy of maybe 11 years old climb on top of a public fountain and stand on it and shout, "Look at me!" (I guess he was showing off for a girl.) This kid weighed at least 150 pounds and the fountain was free standing and very nice having been installed a couple of years earlier by the city. It was not fragile but it was not built for climbing.

So I asked the kid what he was doing and pointed out that he was standing on a drinking fountain and that the playground equipment was, "Over there." He responded with attitude then jumped down and I went on his way.

Later I asked myself if maybe I was just an intolerant, old crank and whether I should have said anything at all. When I was growing up this would not have been a question. I would have worried that the adult would call my parents and inform them of my behavior. Indeed, I don't think I would have done anything so inappropriate and if I did I would have made certain no adult was around to see.  I would have known I was doing something wrong and I certainly would not have expected such behavior to go unnoticed.

Have times changed so much? Have kids no sense of what is acceptable and what is not? Should strangers admonish them when they are out of line? Signed - Old Crank???

Dear Wise Elder,

First, I want to thank you for getting involved! That's what the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child" means and you took it to heart. And though it isn't always appreciated, I think we need it now more than ever.

Yes - times have changed. Children in the past had little power, children of today are sometimes given the message that they are the only ones who matter. A middle ground might be better - where we empower kids AND expect them to be respectful and responsible to the world that holds them up.

But it is natural for kids to test boundaries. It is the first big job of a 2 year old - to find and test where the line is. And parents, teachers, relatives, and the larger community need to be there to help point out it out.

Of course where we draw the line these days has moved. Some of which is great because a few of those old lines were pretty arbitrary and just parental power-tripping! But some of them were about respect and being considerate of others. (Tangent: I was intrigued by the case Malcolm Gladwell makes, in The Tipping Point, for the decrease in crime in New York City subways being connected to arresting people for more petty 'line crossing' - like turnstile jumping and graffiti. Not suggesting we arrest this kid but...if you are called on smaller offenses, you tend to have better boundaries.)

crosslineSo you are wondering whether your request was legitimate. As long as you have a good reason - as in genuinely wanting to teach this child some respect for public property then - yes. That said, and while it is certainly disappointing to see a child disrespect an elder, if you were being cranky about your request - you probably could have handled it better.

HOW we help others (kids and grown-ups) see that line is an art. Admonishing our own kids is one thing because we have a relationship with them. But even with our kids, and especially with unfamiliar kids, the shame factor can get in the way of the lesson.

Try empathy first - even a generous assumption that they just didn't know better - a little humor, kind accountability, and if at all possible, in a way that allows that child to find a graceful exit.

"Wow, I'm thinking that fountain isn't liking that." "That looks like fun, but I'm thinking that that fountain isn't really built for that." (And anytime you can do it privately helps take the bravado factor off the table. Sometimes just the right look, a small wince and a subtle head shake can work.) And always consider going in with the optimistic expectation that they will figure it out. (You might want to think of some of the lines you crossed as a kid - and if you really didn't cross any, you are welcome to have some of mine!)

The good news is that there is a decent chance that your intervention will plant a seed for the next time because even though he gave you a little attitude, he did DO the right thing. Out-and-out defiance would have been a bigger challenge.

Hope that gives you some encouragement. Thanks for being part of our village. Kids need lots of people watching out for them.

Take care, Annie