Peer Pressure: What You Can Do About Poor Parenting

See a parent behaving badly? Here’s when and how to step in.

Peer Pressure: What You Can Do About Poor ParentingIllustration by Carol-Anne Pedneault

Sophie Caruso’s* young cousin got spankings. Sure, they were the kind she and the child’s father, who were raised like siblings, received when they were growing up-swats on the bum that didn’t leave marks. At family gatherings where Caruso would see her cousin and his wife, she’d often witness seven-year-old Devon* getting smacked in situations that struck the Toronto mother of two as typical kid squabbles. “I’d cringe. But I felt like it wasn’t my business and that saying something could damage our relationship forever,” she says.

One day, the two moms were discussing parenthood in general, and the conversation turned to the effectiveness of different discipline strategies. Sensing she had an opening, Caruso said, “I’ve never spanked my kids, but yours aren’t any better behaved than mine.”

“There was this silence for a minute, and then I felt a shift,” she says. “I think there was almost a eureka moment that corporal punishment does not make for a better-behaved child.” Caruso hasn’t seen Devon get a spanking since.

Judy Arnall, a certified parenting educator from Calgary and author of the forthcoming book Parenting With Patience, says it’s best to proceed with caution when it comes to assessing others’ styles. “Parenting is dear to people’s hearts, and it’s a real minefield,” she says.

Because there are so many different approaches, it’s inevitable that we’ll witness tactics employed by close friends, family and stran­gers that we wouldn’t use ourselves. Most of the time, we should leave the situation alone, but much depends on how well you know the person and how easily they might get offended, says Arnall. Let’s say a close friend can’t seem to get her children to listen, and they often behave rudely to her in front of others. “I would feel them out by saying something like, ‘Does that bother you when your children act that way?’ If they seem open to it, you could offer some solutions,” she says.

Strangers we see interacting with their kids at the grocery store checkout should be treated differently, though. If you’re going to get involved, the only way to do so is to offer acknowledgement and help, says Andrea Nair, a psychotherapist and parenting educator from London, Ont. 

While she advocates staying out of it most of the time, Nair recalls witnessing a mother yelling at and belittling her child in the parking lot of a store. She approached the woman and said, “Whoa, I know how you feel. Been there. May I help you put your groceries in the car so you can pick up your child?” The mom in the parking lot accepted her help with a heavy sigh, Nair says. “The first step is validation. Without it, it’ll feel like they’re being judged,” she says. “Receiving help putting the bags in the car just allowed her to see she was scaring her child and needed to regroup.”

Still, it’s important to realize that there’s only so much you can accomplish in situations with stran­gers, says Nair. When a parent is being so hard on a child that someone would feel compelled to intervene, chances are good they’re too stressed and angry to receive your unsolicited advice gracefully. “The defensive part of the brain will click in, and it will feel like an attack,” she says. Don’t expect a response along the lines of, “You’re right, I’ve been going about this parenting thing all wrong.” It’s more likely you’ll be told off. “But what you can hope to do is show that child that you see what is happening-and plant a seed for using positive discipline within that parent.”

It’s also okay to establish bound­aries around how things are handled under your own roof. “If it’s your home, it’s your rules,” says Arnall. If a young guest is whining for ice cream before a meal, you’re perfectly within your rights to say, “In our house, we don’t eat ice cream before dinner,” regardless of whether or not his own parents would acquiesce, she says. And the same is true in reverse. If you’re uncomfortable with the late bedtimes and junk-food consumption that occur when your child stays over at a friend’s, you can either concede that things happen their way at their place or decline the invitation. “If you aren’t comfortable, have the sleepover at your house. Then you can enforce the rules,” Arnall says.

If you’re in neutral territory, such as at a chalet you’ve rented with three other families, you’re only in charge of your children’s behaviour-steer clear of disciplining the other kids, Arnall cautions. Unless your friend’s child is engaging in dangerous behaviour or, say, snooping in your suitcase, which is your private property, you should leave the parenting up to them. 

*Names changed upon request.