What to Do When Your Child Witnesses Bad Discipline

If you have any opinions at all about the appropriate methods of disciplining children, and if you are ever anywhere near any families with different opinions, someday you will find yourself in this situation: Your child sees another parent respond to a child’s behavior in a way that your child recognizes as different, which may be shocking or upsetting to your child.  What can you say to help your child understand what’s going on?

My son Nicholas is eight years old now.  We’ve used a mostly gentle discipline approach that focuses on explaining, redirecting, and using these strategies:

We sometimes get fed up and start yelling or say things that aren’t so nice, but we do our best to avoid being really harsh and hurtful, and we don’t hit him.  That means that when he sees another parent using harsh or violent discipline, he expects an explanation.

I’ve found that the most effective approach is to give Nicholas a look that shows I too am surprised at what is happening in the other family.  These days, he can wait until we’re out of earshot to discuss it, so I wait for his comments or questions and take it from there.  When he was a preschooler, though, he needed to talk about it right away, so I set an example of using quiet voices and not staring.  I would say something like, “She’s hitting him because he won’t stop crying.  Do you think that will help?”  I explain what was going on as best I can (if I didn’t see what behavior prompted the discipline, I say, “…because she’s mad about what he’s been doing.”) and open it up for discussion with my kid.  Sometimes I learn from this about how he thinks discipline should work, what he’s thinking when he and I have a conflict.

Usually he says something like, “No! She should use a nice voice and hug him.”  Sometimes I agree completely.  Other times I empathize with the parent (if I feel like my son’s suggestion is something I wouldn’t be able to do if I were that parent) and say something like, “It’s very hard to use a nice voice to someone who’s making such an annoying noise as that kid.  I guess he’s upset and needs hugging, but that noise just makes me feel crazy!” or, “That mom sounds like she is having a tough day.”

At least once, Nicholas said that yes, he thought the spanking would help.
I restated what he’d said: “You think that being hit on the bottom will make him walk faster and keep up with his family.”
He said, “Yes, because he doesn’t want to get hit again.”
We watched to see what would happen.  The other kid was running to keep up but was wailing and crying.
I said, “When you are walking too slowly, should I hit you?”
Nicholas said, “No! You should tell me where we’re going and how fun it will be.”  I agreed that that was a good idea.

Young children are gradually developing empathy, the ability to understand another person’s feelings and perspective.  Sometimes they identify with the child being punished, but other times they’ll see that as a “bad kid” different from themselves who deserves punishment they would think unfair if it were inflicted on themselves, or they’ll perceive the other kid as simply a noise that ought to be stopped.  Sometimes they identify with the parent who is angry and feels like hitting someone, but they’re not thinking about the person getting hit.  If a child says that violence is the right thing to do to some other kid she doesn’t know, help her think through what she really means.  Most often, you’ll hear your child come around to your point of view–because you’ve been showing her all her life that the ways of your family are normal and make sense–but it’s possible that you’ll hear a difference of opinion.  Resist the urge to lecture your child about why your method of discipline is best.  Listen to her opinion, and think about whether it tells you anything useful for your discipline decisions.  You may actually hear that your child would prefer you to be firmer or speak up more quickly when she’s bugging you!

This approach applies not just to other parents spanking or slapping their kids (which we haven’t seen a whole lot) but to any discipline that looks questionable.  For example, one evening when Nicholas was about four years old, our new neighbor was trying to get into the house with her baby and little girl about two-and-a-half years old, and the girl wanted to be carried which her mom couldn’t manage while holding the baby, so the girl plunked down on the sidewalk (at the top of a full flight of concrete steps) shrieking and thrashing.  Her mother snapped, “Stop that this minute and come into the house.”  She took the baby inside and came back without him.  She crouched next to the girl and yelled, “Stop crying!! Stop crying right now!!” over and over again.  No change in the girl’s behavior.
Nicholas and I gave each other the surprised look.
I said, “Do you think that will work?”
He said, “Of course not, but what should she do?”
I said, “I don’t know; I’ve never figured out a really good way to handle that.”  As we walked on to our house, we talked about how the mother might be worried about the baby in the house but also worried that the girl could fall down the steps if left outside alone.  We talked about why the girl was freaking out and what she might need.  We talked about different things the mother could try and whether or not we thought they would help.  It gave us something to do other than feeling upset by the upsetness of both the parent and the child.

Nicholas has never yet seen a parent abusing a child so severely that I or another bystander would need to intervene.  If you’ve ever intervened in something like that while responsible for your own child(ren), please comment–I would like to feel better prepared if I ever need to do that!

Another activity that’s taught me a lot about disciplining my individual child is reading together the comic-strip stories in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk and discussing whether the parent and child did it “right” or “wrong”.  Sometimes Nicholas thinks the approach that the book is recommending is “wrong”, and when he tells me why, I learn about particular phrases that make him feel bad, certain times when sympathy is annoying, and things like that which are different for different people.  In some of the scenarios, he thinks the kid’s reaction to the “right” parental behavior is unrealistic: “I wouldn’t say that!  I’d still be mad!  I’d say…” and then I can suggest what I might do next, if he said that.

Visit Mom’s Library for more parenting advice and Works-for-Me Wednesday for more tips on all kinds of things!

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

4 Responses to What to Do When Your Child Witnesses Bad Discipline

  1. pmoppins says:

    You seem so calm. 🙂 We have been rather blessed in that our daughter is a fairly placid and happy child so public discipline has rarely been an issue. That goes for smacked bottoms as well, I am not totally against it, we just haven’t had to employ that method very much. We too have had discussions about how other people discipline or don’t discipline their children. I read somewhere that spanking should only be used if there is immediate danger to get a sharp and immediate consequence to their action – as in running out into the road. That way it is not out of anger or frustration that you spank but out of concern for their safety. Being a parent means making a series of hard decisions based on your best judgement all the time. It’s mentally taxing but very rewarding. It sounds like you have done a brilliant job with your son. 🙂

    • 'Becca says:

      Yeah, I can be calm when talking about what other people are doing. When my own kid is driving me up a wall, it’s a lot harder…. I just try not to be the one the other families are talking about!

      I don’t understand the idea that spanking is necessary when a child has been rescued from danger–see “Show. No. Fear.” linked above. Concern for my child’s safety doesn’t connect to hurting him on purpose myself. This is one of the things I was told, “You’ll understand when you’re a parent,” that makes LESS sense to me now that I am a parent and actually have been in that situation.

      My own parents spanked me a few times. Most of the times I remember were when I was persistently refusing to get a grip on myself–for example, spinning on sock feet in the kitchen where my mom was trying to cook and loudly singing that annoying song for the 200th time–and one sharp slap got my attention, instantly turning me from craziness to misery. Was that “not out of anger or frustration”? I doubt it; I’m pretty sure my parents were frustrated that I didn’t respond to earlier, gentler instructions, and they may have been angry by the time they spanked. It was effective at modifying my behavior in the moment and had some deterrent effect in future, but it had the side effect of teaching me that when someone does something you don’t want them to, you hit them–and my parents spent a lot of time trying to teach me otherwise. Nicholas has rarely hit anyone, and when he has he’s always shown some sense of knowing it was wrong.

  2. Pingback: Saying “No!” to Toddlers | The Earthling's Handbook

  3. Pingback: Parenting| Alternative Discipline Methods| Natural Consequences and Rewards | Topic Spill

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