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Afraid to Intervene: When Did Parents Stop Parenting?

"Our children should understand that the adults in their lives – not just their parents, but all adults – care about the choices they make and what they do," writes columnist Dr. Molly O'Shea.

I'm not sure when it changed. Maybe it never did.

Maybe my notion of a neighborhood where the adults all kept an eye on the kids, broke up squabbles, made sure they weren't breaking the rules and told the other parents what they saw is a romantic one – more a movie scene than reality.

It seems, though, that adults today are afraid. Afraid to step in when 8-year-old kids they don't know are fighting on the playground. Afraid to tell random kids at the pool to slow down when they're running recklessly. Afraid to intervene when a gaggle of middle school kids is teasing another kid and excluding him.

Afraid to call the parents when their teenager is heading to a house to 'hang out' when they have never met the kid or the parents. Afraid to tell their niece to quiet down at a family function when the adults are trying to talk.

Afraid to intervene

It's not a leap, then, to imagine that adults would be afraid to intervene when they see something really bad happening. At Penn State, for example, when the trainer walked in on Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting the boy in the shower and walked out, most were surprised. We read that account, stunned and all high and mighty, thinking we'd have stepped in and stopped him cold.

And yet we can't even stop a squabble between kids on the playground. We don't intervene when the stakes are low and assume we will muster the courage when the stakes are high. I'm not so sure. It takes confidence to intervene, and it takes practice.

When should parents step in?

Culturally we have taken a live-and-let-live approach to life here in the United States, and in many ways, this is a good thing. We don't want other people micromanaging our lives or imposing their values or beliefs on us, but some things are universal: People shouldn't be bullied or abused or discriminated against. People should be respected and valued.

Our children should understand that the adults in their lives – not just their parents, but all adults – care about the choices they make and what they do. By standing up for children as an adult bystander, we give the bullied child a safe place, however briefly. By helping kids follow rules, we tell them we care and give them the confidence to follow them when we're not there. By calling the parents of our teenager's friends, they learn we want them to be safe.

Practice makes perfect

Adults need to practice these skills. It feels strange at first to correct or stand up for kids we don't know, and sometimes it's even more awkward to correct or stand up for kids we do, but over time, you get used to it. Teachers are naturals at this and are loved and revered. By practicing this sort of intervention when the stakes are low, you can be sure you'll have the confidence when the stakes are high to do the right thing.

In the case of the Penn State shower incident, with enough practice in low-risk situations, you'd have no hesitation when you saw this horrible sight and would have the confidence to walk straight over and knock Sandusky's block off.

PMas July 18, 2012 at 01:40 AM
As a parent of 3 20+yr olds, I recall being that parent that kept a parental eye out for the kids in the neighborhood. And I always told my kids to behave because I gave permission to my mom friends to call me if my kids were out of line. What disturbs us today sometimes, is poor behavior by parents deriding their kids to the point of public abuse. My husband has had words with bully parents when a child has no place to hide in public. We fear what might be happening at home. But perhaps that is a story for another topic!
Thomas Gagne July 18, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Dr. O'Shea, it wasn't that long ago that most parents didn't presume their children were each perfect geniuses or incapable of any wrong-doing. Several teachers have told me how much more difficult it is simply maintaining discipline in the classroom because informing parents their children aren't angelic or unique little snowflakes risks their complaining to the principal. So what we're left with is more children with little discipline at home, with fewer manners, and schools unable to do much except encourage them to find more productive outlets for their misdirected enthusiasm and energy. Adults don't speak up because too many parents don't care, or take offense to anyone suggesting their children behave inappropriately. Pop-psychology may have improved children's self-esteem but has destroyed their self-respect and respect for others. Too many parents today have outsourced responsibility for raising their kids to day-cares, schools, latch-key programs, and other public resources. In an culture that encourages both parents to develop their professional careers and discourages or dismisses the value of stay-at-home parenting, it's little wonder our children aren't as well socialized as they were only a generation ago.
Concerned parent July 18, 2012 at 03:12 PM
And as we see here there is only one other person who took the time to respond to one of the largest problems in society. It is the attitude of not my problem let someone else do it. I believe as a whole parents have lost sight of parenting in general it's always someone else's kid," not mine " the lack of discipline or punishment doled out is obsolete! Children these days have zero respect for any sort of authority, teachers, principle, or other parents. I am a parent that does intervene and make sure my children understand to behave as if i am standing right next to them but when you intervene with other children you become the bad guy and that is the problem. Schools have lost the power to to discipline or intervene for fear of law suits from parents and if they do discipline suspension for example children consider it a holiday and returned not learning any sort of lesson. What is the answer? Im not quite sure but I do know that parents need to start parenting and stop letting the children dictate the rules.
Diane July 18, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Forget about unruly children, what about unruly parents? The other day we observed from our car, inattentive young mothers having a smoke, with their infant babies in diapers walking freely (no hand-holding), in a busy shopping center parking lot. Now, if someone ran their baby over, the parents would be demonizing the driver in a lawsuit. I have commented on similar situations to parents such as these, but I know it comes across as self righteous interference. My single exchange with the parent will not change their parenting behaviors.
Robin July 18, 2012 at 07:12 PM
I have been the parent, on more than one occasion, to tell other people's kids to stop throwing rocks at windows, it's not nice to hit you need to stop now, or 'does your mom know that you do that' followed by, 'where do you live?' Somehow it hasn't turned the kids against me, however I'm more worried that some crazed indignant parent will attack me for daring to interfere with their perfect child. www.dirtyrottenparenting.com

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