To Speak Or Not To Speak

My wife and I had a conversation just the other day about when it’s OK to intervene when another child is aggressive or tries to take something from our daughter. Both of us have a Ph.D. in education and have worked extensively with children, yet we found the issue to be a challenging dilemma. First, we had to consider the message we would be sending to our daughter about her ability to advocate for herself. Second, we were concerned with what the other child’s parents (or teacher), or other adult observers might think if we intervened. Would it be better to tell the adult responsible for the environment or situation (teacher, coach, etc.), or to just act on our daughter’s behalf? 

As I write this column, I am not going to pretend I have all of the answers. However, given the amount of time that park and recreation staff members spend interacting with parents and children, the question of how and when to allow a parent to speak to someone else’s child is worth exploring. Before you read my take, I want to stress that these are conversations that must be discussed internally as a staff team, and whatever expectations you have must be communicated, modeled, and enforced consistently across youth programs.

When It’s An Obligation

The one obvious time it is OK and really an ethical responsibility to speak up and/or intervene is a risk of physical or emotional harm. The former situation is easier to identify than the latter. If a child is preparing to do anything that might cause bodily harm to himself or herself or someone else, you should act. There are two caveats:

  1. By acting, you do not put yourself in harm’s way.
  2. By acting, you are not causing any harm.

The potential for significant emotional harm is not always as easy to recognize as the potential for physical harm. Unkind words are never easy to hear, especially when directed at your own child. That said, isolated instances or occurrences generally do not predict long-term harm (keeping in mind that each child and situation is unique). What is immediately worrisome and might likely warrant a timely intervention is observing a pattern of exclusion or demeaning (bullying) behavior, or a group of children targeting an individual. In either case, stepping in to stop a negative action and then notifying the responsible coach/instructor/teacher may be appropriate.

It’s Not The Time Or Place

The flip side of the obligation scenarios is the time when parents need to stay out of the picture. Asking a parent to remove himself or herself from a situation is never easy to do, but at times it is necessary, but advice on how to have those types of conversations is a topic for another day. Simply put, parents (and any adult really) need to stay out of situations when the children are working through a conflict/dispute in an appropriate manner. To be clear, it is OK to step in if the children are working the matter out in a manner other than what the adult would choose, or if the outcome the young people arrive at is not what the “grown-up” believes is fair or just. Youth need to have the opportunity to practice standing up for themselves and working through confrontation and conflict. Not only does intervention from adults deny them the opportunity to build those skills, but also can be a source of embarrassment for the children of the intervening parent(s).

The Grey Area

In the real world of youth programming, situations are rarely as cut and dried as the previous examples. At first glance, the potential for harm may not be apparent, and it demands waiting and observing to see if children are working on resolving a dispute, or if the situation is escalating to a point where intervention is necessary. So, without some clarity, what should be the driving force that determines if and how to correct, discipline, or redirect someone else’s child?

The first factor to consider is the age/status gap between the children. As a general rule, I believe the greater the power/age differential, the more appropriate it is to intervene on behalf of the less powerful/less dominant child. For example, if I am at the playground and witness a 12-year-old taking a ball from a 7-year-old (assuming no other adult is supervising the immediate area affiliated with either child), I wouldn’t have a problem asking the older child to return the ball. On the other hand, if another 7-year-old is trying to take the ball, I’m not sure I would intervene unless there are other factors that would made me think someone might get hurt.

Another factor to consider is how any intervention would be received by the children and other adult observers (including those who learn of the occurrence after the fact). Ultimately, this can boil down to word choice, tone, or body language. A good standard to maintain is not to do/say anything to someone else’s child that you would not do in front of that child’s parent. By maintaining that standard, you are more likely to avoid doing or saying anything that could be interpreted as hostile or threatening to a child.

A third consideration is another adult being present whose role is to create and enforce group-behavior guidelines. Is a coach present with a team? Is an instructor present with a class? If such an adult is present, ask why he or she isn’t intervening. Maybe the coach or instructor has a better understanding of the group dynamic or is purposely trying to let the children resolve the issue. Perhaps they missed seeing the event and it would be more appropriate to tell them what you saw. Or they did see exactly what you saw, but knowing the participants and the bigger picture, they choose to let it go and focus their efforts on other “battles.” In any of these cases, the concerned adult must weigh the options of intervening, instigating a conversation with the responsible adult, or just continuing to observe.

The final consideration I want to address is how any potential intervention might be interpreted by the child. In many situations, the child who appears to be the victim or “loser” in a dispute might prefer that outcome to having an adult (especially someone else’s parent) interfere. If the child does not seem overly troubled by the situation or outcome, it may be better for the adult to withdraw.

So, when is it OK for adults to step in and correct or discipline other people’s children?

This is truly a dilemma in which every situation is different. That said, by sharing some of what I see as key drivers of the decision to speak or not to speak, I hope I have helped you start a conversation among staff members and ultimately with the parents you serve. By having an open dialogue and coming to a consensus, you can take the first important step in establishing a collaborative community environment in all of your programs, and hopefully reduce the number of potential parent/child disciplinary encounters.

Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at