Last night I had what was probably my most awkward interchange with another child to date.  Mark works late on Tuesday nights, and the kids also have swim lessons in the evening, so I usually take them out to dinner afterwards to avoid cooking and trashing the house.  When I am eating out with four kids by myself, I tend to stick to restaurants that are kid-focused.  There’s a pizza place near my house with a little play area, and tonight we went to another favorite spot, which is a BBQ joint with a small outdoor play structure.

These settings are always an interesting study in parent-to-parent dynamics, because basically what happens is that a group of moms sit around watching their children interact and play with a bunch of strangers’ children.  It seems inevitable that conflicts arise . . . some kid is breaking rules or rough-housing, or using potty words or being too loud.  And when something happens, if your own kid is involved, you get the pleasure of trying to solve the issue in front of an audience of parents you don’t know.

I have determined that parents tend to fall into one of three categories in these settings.  Some parents watch and observe, and then assume their child to be the innocent victim in any conflict that arises.  (You know the ones.  The “Oh, sweetie, what did that boy do to you?” types).  Then there are the moms who, when they hear crying or fighting, just assume that their own kid is the cause.  (That would be me, yelling, JAFTA, WHAT DID YOU DO?  despite the fact that the crying child is ten feet away from him).  And then there are the moms that just aren’t paying a bit of attention to the dynamics of the children.  It is also my experience that the children of this last group of moms are usually the ones causing the most trouble in the circus ring, as the rest of us shoot each other exasperated glances and make passive-aggressive sighs of solidarity in how ridiculous and neglectful we find these mothers, the ones who choose their own food and conversation above hovering over their child’s social interchanges.  HOW DARE THEY.

Last night I was faced with the EXTREME COMBO of the aforementioned obnoxious child/oblivious mom.  We were at the BBQ place, and there was a little boy (we’ll call him Trevor) who was being really pushy with India.  He kept grabbing onto her shirt while they were playing, and she’s a pretty laid-back kid but I could see her frustration mounting.  At one point he was chasing her while holding onto her shirt and I started to kind of scan the crowd to try to figure out who is mom was before I intervened.  No one was watching and they were standing within earshot, so I did my usual “group admonishment” that I employ when I’m trying to call out a kid that doesn’t belong to me without really looking like I’m calling out a kid that doesn’t belong to me.  So in my best kindergarten-teacher voice, I asked all the kids to keep their hands to themselves.  Only Trevor didn’t look at me, and still had the end of India’s t-shirt in his hand.  So then I looked at him and told him directly to keep his hands to himself.  I’m still looking around for Trevor’s mom and still don’t see an interested party, which is a bit strange.  Typically when an adult interlopes into the play area, it’s like a record scratch moment when other parents prick up their ears to see if the intervention is involving their own kid.  So I unfurl his hand from her t-shirt, and say, “Honey, where is your mom?”, because it’s feeling a bit weird to be physically pulling him off my kid, but he clearly isn’t listening to me using my words.  When I ask this, he laughs and runs away from me, and I walk after him, asking where his mom is, and then he’s running and suddenly I feel like I am chasing someone else’s kid so I stop and go back to my table, hoping that will be the end of it.

At this point, Trevor and a couple other kids (who seem to be with him) start running back and forth between the play structure and an alley that leads to a parking lot behind the building.  Of course, Karis starts to follow them.  Not being a fan of kids running in alleys that lead to areas where cars are driving, I tell my kids they aren’t allowed to run back and forth with these boys, and I hear a number of other parents issuing similar rules to their kids.  I’m a little perplexed that this group of three boys don’t seem to have parents that care if they do, but I can’t decide if I should make an issue of it or not by telling other people’s kids to stop running in the alley.  I decided not to.

Trevor and his friends now make a game of running into the play area, telling a kid they are going to shoot them “in the privates”, and then running back into the alley out of sight of any adults.  A few times Karis is in the mix, and now Trevor’s grabbing the end of her shirt, too.  Then I notice he’s chasing India in the play area again.  Then I see that she’s on the ground and he has a death-grip on her leg as she’s trying to get away from him.  Once again, I walk into the play area and tell him to keep his hands to himself, but this time I’m determined I’m gonna get his mom involved because SHEESH.  Other parents are shooting me sympathetic glances.  I ask him where his mom his.  He runs away from me, and this time goes around the restaurant to a side area with a storage shed.  I follow him back there, trying to coax him back to the play area so we can talk with his mom.

This is where it gets really weird.  Because now I’m alone with a kid around the side of a building.  I try taking his hand and reassuring him that we’re just going to go find his mom.  But when I do this, he pulls his hand out and tries hiding from me.  So now he’s in what I wouldn’t consider a safe area, hiding . . . and I’m the adult who followed (chased?) him back there, and I feel responsible to see to it that he is corralled back to the play area.  I ask him to just point to his mom so I can get her.  He refuses.  I take his hand again, because I’m not leaving him back here, and I now have four kids playing unattended, one of whom is a toddler who is pretty keen on following some other boys into the alley that is on the other side of the building.  I tell him we need to go find his mom, and take a firmer grip on his hand, now feeling really, really weird that I’m touching someone else’s kid, but unable to think of anything else to do because this kid is about 6 years old and completely non-compliant and I don’t feel good about leaving him back here. 

Finally, he runs around me back into the area where the adults are, and as he runs by a woman about my age, she says, “Where have you been?”  Clueless mom identified.  Sitting in deep conversation with a friend and clearly annoyed by the need to stop and actually parent.

At which point, I wanted to say, HELLO?  He’s been running up and down the alley for the better part of an hour and you are just now noticing he’s not in view? But instead I let her know, in my best non-judgmental, understanding voice, that her son was being a bit grabby with my girls.  She tells him not to play rough, and goes back to her conversation. 

A couple minutes go by, and Trevor is still being wild and grabby but not with my kids at least, and at one point actually comes over to me (I’m sitting alone at a table) and starts yelling at me.  He’s yelling that he’s going to put me in jail and throw away the key, and other various threats.  Again, I am left trying to figure out how to respond to another kid’s bad behavior, because I would never in a million years let my kids talk to an adult like that . . . but it’s not my kid.  I think about getting his mom again, but she’s totally checked out, and clearly in some denial that her kid needs more supervision than she’s giving.  I think about reprimanding him myself, but that didn’t work so well before.  So this time, I did nothing, beyond giving the moms at the table next to me a return eye-roll at this kid’s loud disrespect.

Have you ever been in a situation like this, where a stranger’s kid is totally out-of-control?  What do you do?  When I came home and told Mark about following him around the corner, Mark thought I should have left him there.  NOT YOUR PROBLEM, he said.  I tend to take a more community approach, because honestly, if my kid was hiding around the corner I would want another adult to corral them back to the play area.  But then again, if my kid was yelling at an adult, I would want that adult to correct them, too.  If my kid was being grabby, I would want to be told.  I don’t really mind other parents giving my kids a verbal correction if they are really out of line.  I guess I’m of the “it takes a village” persuasion when kids are blatantly inappropriate.  But I know others are not so keen on that.

How do you handle disciplining other people’s kids?  When do you step in, and when do you let it go?  How do you feel about other people correcting your kids?