A while back, I led a parenting group for parents with children involved in the juvenile justice system. I started the group reviewing and discussing the strengths of each parent. I didn’t want us to devolve into cheerleading, but I wanted to ensure these parents were recognized for the work they put into being good parents, despite being under-resourced and living in communities where their children were rarely safe. About halfway through the session, I asked them the following question:
“What is the most difficult aspect of raising children?”
Almost to a person: “Other people’s kids.”
Most of the parents spoke about other youth being “bad influences,” others admitted to comparing their children to others who weren’t involved in negative behaviors. These parents had children on probation, in custody, and/or had younger children in the home who were vicariously impacted by the justice system. Many caregivers asked how to balance the pressures they already experience with the pressures that come from interacting with other youth and families.
I shared my (several) experiences setting limits with other folk’s offspring. For the next hour, we discussed interventions and approaches to dealing with the children of others.
Here are 10 tactics generated in the session.
1. Check your intersecting privileges and oppressions. Make sure when you speak to other people’s children, you’re speaking to the issue at hand, and not engaging through a filter of superiority or social/ecological hurt. Be as neutral in your approach as possible. Striving for neutrality is a check against being emotionally compromised and derailing the interaction.
2. Do you really need to engage the child? Is what they are doing an emotional or physical safety hazard? Or are they just getting on your nerves? If it’s the latter, sit with yourself to figure out the true source of your annoyance. More often than not, it has nothing to do with what the child is doing.
3. Get on all of their levels. It doesn’t matter if it’s praise or correction, make eye contact with the child and give them the respect they deserve. Physically get down to their level—the world looks a whole lot different from adult’s knees down. Speak to them at the appropriate developmental level. Be as non-judgmental and succinct as you possibly can. Don’t lecture. Most of us tune out lectures.
4. Don’t touch other people’s children. That is, unless it’s a safety hazard (someone assaulting or being assaulted, or a risk of serious damage). No parent will tolerate a stranger touching his or her child. I shared with the group my mistake of offering simple first aid to a child, and how the encounter turned into a racist fiasco.
5. Don’t be afraid to speak to other parents. If a child is doing something you think warrants your intervention, find and talk to their parent or grown-up. It’s not your place to discipline them. Let the child know you’re going to speak with their parent/grown up and then follow through.
6. Be patient. Allow children to explain themselves, at their own pace. Do not prompt them, make assumptions, or put words in their mouths. They are people, no matter how small or immature—give them the opportunity to practice agency. Listen.
7. Respect their boundaries. If they move away from you, do not move closer. If they look uncomfortable, do not press the issue. You interacting with them could cause more trauma than the initial behavior you are engaging them about.
8. If “touchy” subjects arise, refer them to their grown-ups. Regarding questions of race, sexuality, gender/fluidity, what have you—be respectful of the question being asked, and then refer them to their parents. Don’t shoot down the question, but it really isn’t your place to be their social health instructor. However, if these things arise in a negative way (i.e., bullying and name calling), correct them, and then refer them back to their parents. If possible, give the parents a heads-up first. Everyone wants a little warning before, “Daddy? How old do you have to be before you can find an orgasm?” [Actual quote.]
9. Tell children what you want them to do. If you lead with “I don’t like it when…” or “You shouldn’t do…” you are already erecting a barrier. If someone’s child is doing something that would invite some kind of intervention, tell him or her the positive behavior you would like to see—i.e., “When you talk in a quiet voice and let the other children ride the see-saw, that’s incredible.”
10. Address the behavior and not the child. There are no bad kids. They may do bad things, and this behavior is what you want to speak to. If you can externalize the behavior, you have opened the door to exploring it with the child and their parent/s. It should be framed as: “You did a bad thing” and not as “You are a bad person for doing this thing.”
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.