disciplining other people's children


Air travel can be annoying. Getting through security, waiting to board and then eventually making your way onto a large aircraft with a surprisingly small amount of space isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But recently, during a flight home, Kourtney Kardashian’s trip turned sour when a woman reprimanded her kids for not covering their mouths when they coughed. Kourtney took to Twitter to express her displeasure:

“People on airplanes are so wild these days… Telling other people’s children to cover their mouths. Cover YOUR mouth.”

Personally, I think she overreacted. Covering your mouth is a way to prevent the spread of germs, and we all know how quickly those germs can travel when you’re stuck on an airplane with limited space.

Being reprimanded by strangers isn’t anything new to me. I was raised in the south, and things like this were a regular occurrence. When it came to discipline, parents, family friends, neighbors and even people you didn’t know scolded you if you were caught running down the aisles knocking things over, throwing stuff at cars or coughing without covering your mouth.

The rule was that as long as an adult wasn’t creepy or trying to kidnap you, they were an authority figure, and their word was law. So, it’s kind of weird for me to encounter parents who don’t want anyone else ever disciplining their child.

About two weeks ago I was boarding a train headed to Brooklyn. I had one foot in the door when a kid came running up, shoving his way onto the train nearly me knocking over, and an elderly woman as well. His mother just ignored it, but I couldn’t so I told him, “It’s very rude to shove someone without saying ‘excuse me.’” I didn’t do so in an aggressive way. I as very calm and nice, but firm.

His mother, however, felt that I was out of line and told me so. She explained in not so polite terms that she was the parent and that she would discipline her child as she saw fit. Anger got the best of me and I replied with a nasty remark of my own, then I turned and walked to the other end of the subway car.

Maybe I should have handled things differently. Maybe I should have addressed the parent, but it was very clear to me that she didn’t care that her son had nearly knocked down an old lady. I know that it’s up to every parent to figure out how they want to raise their child and discipline can be a tricky issue, but I’ve witnessed the same situation as the one I experienced far too often.

Is it ever OK to discipline a stranger’s child? Personally, I think so, especially when the parent isn’t. Kids aren’t going to be traumatized by a stranger politely telling them not to do something that could potentially harm them or is just a social norm (like covering your mouth to cough).

And, be honest, are you always paying attention at the exact moment when your child is misbehaving? Sometimes it’s better for kids to be disciplined by someone other than their parents. Strangers are less likely to put up with bad behavior, and a child will likely always remember being reprimanded by someone else, and will think twice before misbehaving again.

I firmly believe in the old cliché that it takes a village to raise a child. It’s the responsibility of adults to guide children into becoming good functioning members of society and sometimes parents need a little help. Having a stranger address your child just reinforces the rules we’re all meant to live by and the rules that most of you have taught your kids. It’s important that kids recognize other authority figure besides their parents and teachers.

Discipling a child can be tough, and strangers who intervene can offer a different perspective, one that could help, because parents don’t always know how to handle a situation. It’s a learning experience for you and the child. It’s moment for the child to learn how to interact with others and treat adults, but also a chance for you explain why the adult said what they said or see a discipline technique different from your own.

As long as whoever reprimands your child does so in way that doesn’t hurt anyone, then really what’s the issue?

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This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission.
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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I agree that it takes a village, and I have no problem with strangers instructing my children, when necessary (though I’m pretty hard on them myself, so I think I’ve only encountered this once or twice). However, I think there’s a way to do it that takes the judgmental edge off and makes other parents a little more understanding and accepting of the help…I usually start it off with, “Sweetie” (yes, I’m Southern) and end it with a smile. Something along the lines of “Sweetie, you need to be careful not to push people because you almost knocked me and this other lady over.” And I literally usually look at the other mom, shrug and say, “it takes a village”…just to let them know that I’m on their side. Sometimes I give an example of my own boisterous boys. Granted, I don’t know how old this boy was…I’m the mom of little boys, 6 and 3. If this was a much older boy, like a tween or teenager, I might have been a bit gruffer. I mean, if we’re calling Miss Manners here, while it is very rude to push someone (with or without an ‘excuse me’), it’s also very rude to tell someone in a public setting that they are being very rude. As for Kourtney Kardashian’s situation, I think her oldest is only 3 or 4…while kids should cover their cough, that’s pretty young to have gotten the message and perform it on a consistent basis…plus, let’s be honest, even when my 6 yr old “covers his cough” with his elbow, he really just coughs over the top of his elbow…he still doesn’t really understand the concept, though he tries. I think often parents of older children forget what is developmentally appropriate for younger children. And the last nugget I’m going to leave is that young boys, for whatever reason, don’t seem to have good control over their bodies. I don’t know how many times my sons have jostled me and been surprised when I explain that stepping on my foot hurts me, or knocks me off balance, etc. I grew up with sisters and never experienced this, but now as the mom of 2 boys, I’ve actually researched the issue (because I seriously was concerned that something was amiss with my oldest) and it’s a thing. Just one more thing to take into consideration…the boy may have honestly not even noticed that he pushed into you, especially when its crowded on a subway…again, this is a developmental issue, and for the sake of my toes, an issue I hope my sons grow out of before they get too big.

  2. I agree with the author here. I’m usually pretty on top of my kid’s behavior, but I’m completely comfortable with strangers making my kids aware of inappropriate behavior if I’ve neglected to do so. As adults, my kids will need to be aware of how strangers view their behavior if they’re going to take part in society. They might as well start that awareness as children.

  3. I have no problem with disciplining other people’s children. I don’t go looking for opportunities to do so, but if a child is doing something that is dangerous or harmful, then yes. I probably wouldn’t tell someone else’s child to cover their mouth when they cough, but I don’t think that doing so is out of line. I’m very aware that my daughter needs to learn that, and repetition is key to that kind of thing–and hearing it from strangers means that’s not just Mommy being picky, but an actual thing.

  4. My dad grew up in a middle class Black neighborhood in DC in the 1920-30s. He used to tell me that when he was a boy, if his neighbors caught him misbehaving when he was outside playing, they would not hesitate to scold or even spank him. Then they would tell his parents and he would get punished a second time! He certainly got the message that his community had a role in his upbringing and would hold him accountable for his actions. But this was also back in the days when everyone in the neighborhood had similar cultural backgrounds and value systems, which is not always the case today. I like Allyssa’s suggested approach to the situation. Making the child’s parent feel less defensive might help them view your actions as helpful rather than judgmental. Sometimes children listen better when the rebuke comes from a stranger instead of yet another scolding from Mom or Dad.

  5. If for whatever reason I am not paying attention when my kid does something rude, I hope that someone will step up and gently, kindly redirect them. No, it is not okay for a stranger to yell at, demean or touch my child. But tell him to cover his mouth when he coughs? I don’t care. Remind her not to push a friend? Sure. I do it all the time when moms are not watching their kids.

  6. The thing is I don’t believe this is discipline. I agree you should be able to do this, but discipline to me is far more than saying something. I believe this is just correcting behavior. Discipline, to me, implies there is a consequence involved. That is when I have a problem. I don’t think it is OK for strangers to hand out consequences, but saying something about a child’s behavior is 100% OK.

  7. I work with infants and toddlers. By the time they are 2.5 – 3 years old thet are more and able to cover their mouths with their arms. It actually infuriates me to see children 4+ coughing all over people and things. I once witness a child coughing all over the food table at a party. The parent should not even have let the child stand there. So gross!!!

    I wish people would be as passionate about teaching their children to cover their mouths as they are to tell others to vaccinate!

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