Other People's Children


Fatherhood and Parenting
Author Martin Wolterding

Should we discipline other people’s children? If so, how should we do it? MOL member Martin Wolterding relates his experience of trying to break up a fight and asks for your comment on whether he did the right thing.
I had an argument with a mother yesterday. It’s not the first one I’ve had and this one occurred at the nearby swimming pool.

I’m the primary carer for our 5-year-old boy David while my wife Rosemary works full-time. Being school holidays, David was home from pre-school and with me all day. I decided to take him to the local indoor pool because he loves playing in water so much. I myself dislike swimming pools because I consider them very dangerous and as a result, end up on permanent lifeguard duty.

Being the holidays, the pool was packed with young children all madly playing in the shallow end of the pool. I followed David around interacting with him when he wanted or else just following behind him from a discreet distance to assure myself that he was safe.

Suddenly, across my path rushed two boys about nine or 10 years old, having what looked to me to be an old fashioned fist-fight. I moved up to them and said in my command voice, "No fighting!"

My command voice is one of my most effective disciplinary devices – my son sometimes calls it my mean voice. It’s the tone of voice one uses with a puppy to warn him off jumping up on the furniture. When used suddenly on a child who is seriously misbehaving, 19 out of 20 times it’s all you need to stop the child’s misbehaviour. When David is being disobedient I only have to say, "Do you want me to use the mean voice" and he will generally pay attention and follow my instruction.

Confronted with the "No fighting" command, both children immediately stopped. One turned his back on the other and began to walk away, whereupon the other hauled back and punched him in the back with what seemed to me to be all his 9-year-old strength. I immediately went down on one knee so that we were eyeball-to-eyeball; held both his upper arms firmly (not squeezing but firmly) so that he couldn't turn away from me; and inches away from his face I growled quietly, "If you hit anyone else, I'll take you out of the pool". His face crumpled, he began to cry, I released him and he moved off. I then went back to looking after my boy. The entire episode took about 20 seconds.

About five minutes later I saw him with his mother on the side of the pool. She was beckoning me to come.

"My boy tells me you hit him. Did you?"

"No," I replied and began to relate the story.

After less than 10 seconds she interrupted me, "Who is the boy he is supposed to have hit?"

I shrugged and said "I don’t know" and continued to relate the story.

At this point I’m beginning to feel defensive. A few seconds later she interrupts me again. I’m now feeling frustrated also because it seems like I’m never going to get to tell "my side" of the story.

As it turns out, I never did get the chance to finish. Her argument seemed to be, "You don't know what had gone on before so you had no right to step in."

After having been interrupted four or five times my frustration and fear began to show as a note of suppressed emotion crept into my voice. Then she interrupted me accusing me of being angry, and yelling.

Now, I know I have a voice which is naturally louder than the average Australian's and I was speaking a bit louder than I normally do, but by my standards I was certainly not yelling. After a few more minutes of this I gave up any attempt at communicating with her, turned around and walked back into the pool. Eventually, she got one of the lifeguards. When I described the situation I had encountered and my own actions the matter went no further.

I, of course, bring my own baggage into every situation I encounter. As a child I was bullied for many years by other children my age and older. This bullying took the form of both physical beatings as well as exclusion from the 'in-group'. Today, I am sensitive (perhaps hypersensitive) to what I see as bullying and often intervene.

Moreover, as seemed to me to be the case in the pool, I become emotionally involved when I see the use of physical violence to settle disputes. I feel this form of violence between children is not on, and needs to be strongly discouraged with other more positive methods of conflict resolution being substituted.

Fundamentally, I believe that raising children properly is a societal obligation, and not one which falls solely on the shoulders of parents and other authority figures. I never remember having an adult come to my aid when I was bullied as child. And I had no father around to come to my rescue, even in my imagination.

Today when I read and hear on the radio about adolescent boys and young men who are violent to each other, to women or animals I feel that behaviour is the result of the lack of societal restraint and discipline over many previous years. If, when they were young children, more adult males had sent them the unequivocal message that violence towards another was not acceptable, then the chances of them being violent young adults would be less.

When a young child gets bashed by older children, or when a young girl or woman is violently raped and murdered by a group of drunken, adolescent men, the society wrings its hands and says, "Why wasn't something done earlier?". Yet, when I, a stranger, step in to stop violence, I am often told by other adults concerned to "leave it to the (absent) authorities".

Admittedly, it would have been preferable to follow my command with a heart-to-heart talk with the boys in the pool, but I still needed to look after my boy and I doubt whether they would have stuck around for it.

Well, I open it up to you all. If you feel I acted inappropriately either partially or completely, tell me what should or could have done? The fact that I don’t feel completely comfortable with the way I handled the whole situation indicates to me that there are probably better ways than the ones I used. Let’s also discuss these issues of violence and disciplining boys, and where the boundaries of responsibility lie.

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