Moms: Not My Business?

When a parent reacts strongly to a toddler’s meltdown on a plane or in a supermarket, many bystanders feel uncomfortable. But when you believe that discipline crosses the line into abuse, what should you do? Moms Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker talk about the right time to step in. Dr. Charles Sophy, Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, also shares advice about the best way to intervene in another parent’s problems.

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ALLISON KEYES, Host:

We spoke about discipline in New Orleans schools a few minutes ago. Let's talk about discipline in public now with our moms.

TELL ME MORE: As soon as you wedge into a seat, a baby starts screaming. But, on a recent Southwest Airlines flight, the mother of said screaming child allegedly smacked her 13-month-old toddler. Some reports say the mother hit the infant in the face, others say it was a smack on the leg. But a flight attendant stepped in, took the baby from the mother, and called for help.

The child was returned to her parents, but we wondered: When is it okay to intervene if you see a parent disciplining a child it what seems to be a questionable way?

Joining us to weigh in on this, our regular parenting contributors: moms Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker. They're here with me in our D.C. studios. Also joining us from his vacation is Dr. Charles Sophy. He's Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. He also has a private practice in adolescent and adult psychiatry.

Welcome you all to the program.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Allison.

DANI TUCKER: Hey, Allison.

CHARLES SOPHY: Thank you for having me.

KEYES: Dr. Sophy, let me start with you and we'll just kind of walk through a scenario. You're a parent, you're in public and your kid does something that requires you to discipline them. And then someone who thinks they know a better way to do that steps in and tells you how to correct your child. How common is this?

SOPHY: Well, unfortunately, it's common. But that other parent stepping in should not be telling you how to do it. They should really be stepping in to see if you need some support because, clearly, a parent is at the end of their rope as well. And I think that's the best way to enter one of those kinds of situations where you can be supportive and collaborative and help that parent out.

KEYES: Jolene, has that ever happened to you? I mean you've seen something that looks just a little egregious.

IVEY: Oh, absolutely. And I have to say that although Dr. Sophy might be saying what should happen, what really happens, if you see somebody who you think is abusing a child, you don't go over and speak real sweetly. I mean I've seen it happen where a woman was holding her baby - a baby small enough not to be able to crawl, I don't think - and was smacking that baby on the face. And I went over there and yelled at that woman and told her I was going to take that baby from her and I was going to put it in a car seat and take it home.

But I just felt like, you know, her behavior was so off the chain. It was just, like, ridiculous and I told her that how could she expect that baby to grow up and respect himself if she wasn't respecting the baby?

SOPHY: You're totally right. That's the thing. The fine line of discipline and abuse, and that's where the education for the general population has to be.

KEYES: I'm interested, though, to see how the mother responded, because I can think of many scenarios where that might've gone south.

IVEY: I am sure that I didn't handle it the best way possible. But it was a visceral reaction and she was not real happy with me. But she did stop hitting the baby, at least in front of me. And it's not even like I'm Miss Never-Spank- Your-Child. I mean, each one of mine, except for the baby, has never been spanked.

KEYES: And you have five boys.

IVEY: I have five boys. One, two, three and four have all gotten a spanking at some point - at least one. The baby never has, but he's only 10, there's always still time.

KEYES: Dani, let me ask you, have you been that mom that's jumping in the middle?

TUCKER: Been on both sides. Yeah. And as a young mother, when my son was young and I snatched him up in a grocery store, I'll never forget it. But the mother that helped me was nice. She said, you know what? I understand what you're doing, but let's go to the bathroom and do that because people that are looking at you may not understand. Because my son was just having a fit and I snatched him up. I lost it. I was, like, you know, I was a young mother. And on the other equation is, you know, I live in Ward 8, D.C., where we have a lot of single moms and, you know, I've had to say something to them, the way - especially the way they speak to their kids.

But just like the mother that did to me, it's all in the way that you do it. I mean I'm not going to go in there and correct this mother, make this mother feel like she's less of a mother because I had to step in. You know, I just, like I say to some of the young women around the neighborhood, why don't I take her for you while you get it together because I know you don't really mean to talk to her like that, you know. I know you don't mean to cuss your child out like that. So it's all in how you, you know, how you say it to them.

KEYES: Were you affronted, though, that the person stepped to you in the first place? Did you feel like they were getting into something that wasn't their business?

TUCKER: I did because I was, as we say, I was about to go on her, you know? I was. I was - you know, but at the same time I was going through something. I was actually a young mother and she basically defused the situation.

KEYES: Dr. Sophy, how do you tell the difference between a situation where if you do approach the mother, you're not perhaps placing the child in danger for later. You always wonder if you say something to a mom in public, is the child then going to get in trouble later? How do you walk that line?

SOPHY: Well, I mean it's very difficult. But the common things to know, as these women have said earlier, these are emotionally volatile situations. They are probably humiliating for both people watching, the child and the parent. The way you approach it is: Are they really trying to discipline or is it really crossing that line to abuse? Either way, you need to jump in to be able to get to that mother so she can hear you.

If a mom can't hear you, she could run or she could react in a negative way. So it's kind of reaching in collaboratively, but also getting them to hear you, to feel safe enough to even relinquish that baby to you to hold till they calm down. Then you kind of got to make a friend with them to see if, you know, they do this at the home in their private place or if they're the kind of woman who was just having a rough day.

If you feel that this is a regular way of them dealing with things, and they are harsh with their children, then you can follow them, get their license plate, call it into the child abuse hotline if you think so, or have the police alerted, but you'll feel that out in each situation. It's different. But you got to be able to enter it in a way that you're going to get that information back.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

We're talking to moms and a doctor about when it's appropriate to intervene when you see a child being disciplined in a questionable way. And doctor, to go back to our original story, the child in that story was 13 months old. What is appropriate discipline for a child that age?

SOPHY: I mean discipline in general should be something that is going to teach your child, is going to train your child, prepare your child, those kinds of things - a balance between overall mutual respect and power. Because your children are helpless, so they will shrink to that kind of stuff. So you've got to really watch the tone of your voice and the way that - the manner with which your body is held.

So, doing it in a powerful, but respectful way is the way to do it. When you cross that line either because you're a mom who just drug on five bags on an airplane or fought through a crowd, that child should not be paying the price for your inability to be, you know, not able to contain your anxiety and your feeling.

If you really feel like you're pushing yourself, take a break. Ask somebody to help you because you're pushing yourself to your limit and then your child is going to pay and you're going to be humiliated. And the worst part of it is your child learns that feeling and feels bad about themselves and then learns to do that themselves.

KEYES: Dani, I want to ask you, where do you think that line is as a mom? 'Cause we were talking earlier, I mean, there were some of us that were brought up - we were spanked. We did not get the time out in a corner and it didn't seem to ruin us. Is there a place where you have to say, okay, honey, that's just a bad thing. And then the other time you do whatever.

TUCKER: Yeah, I think it's all in moderation. I think some people aren't spanking their kids enough, if you ask me. It's not illegal to spank your child, you know. Like, my father used to tell us - time outs were for baseball games and football games. You know, time out had nothing to do with the child. But that was the old school. That was the way they were raised.

Now, I don't spank my kids in the way that, you know, like my parents did. And they didn't spank me like their parents did and so forth. So you get better at it. But there are times that call for corporal punishment and it's not illegal, you know? I mean, so you have to find that line. You know your child. And you know your child, you know, when they should be disciplined. And so discipline them.

We have a tendency, you know, all of a sudden to stop spanking, it's so bad for everybody - when did that happen? 'Cause there's a lot of kids out here, in my opinion, especially around our subways here in D.C., they need their hides, you know, torn. They really do. Because you're just being rude, disrespectful. And if I was your mama, we going to handle this.

KEYES: And back in the old days you could've.

TUCKER: You could, yeah. But, you know, we didn't have the same problems. You didn't see us on the bus and on the subways disrespecting people. I mean, these kids - some of these kids have been left to their own devices.

KEYES: Dr. Sophy, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask the only doctor in the room, isn't it okay to spank your kids every now and then? Is it not?

SOPHY: Discipline can be done with some physicalness as long as it's done with thoughtfulness, with love and the intention only to instill an understanding into your child. You're not going to scream and yell and berate your child because then there's no focus to that purpose. You need to be able to have a focus and a reason to be doing it. It has to be age appropriate. It has to be done without rage and intense anger. You know, the earlier you do it, the better.

Always, I tell parents, parenting begins with you the parent. If you're not solid and whole within yourself, then you're not going to raise a child who's solid and whole within themselves. So get yourself solid.

IVEY: One thing we didn't get to talk about is it ever okay to discipline someone else's child? And I was at a burger place and there were these two boys. They looked to be about 13 or 14. And they were saying some very inappropriate things very loudly, bad language, all of that. And I just had to go over to them and said, look, that's it. Do you know that you would be embarrassing your family if they could see you now? You have to stop. And I got on their case. And they were so shocked. Because I'm sure they looked like the kind of kids that other people would be afraid of. But what I saw was two kids that needed to be straightened out.

SOPHY: They were scared little kids inside. I just did it on the beach yesterday.

IVEY: Oh yeah. So it's okay.

SOPHY: My eight year old, and there's a bunch of teenagers next to us with obscenities. And I looked at them, I said, he can hear you and I don't appreciate it and I don't know if your parents would like that or if they allow it, but I don't want to be around it.

KEYES: Let me ask you a question: If you are a person trying to discipline somebody else's kids and the kids jump back at you, what do you do? You just back off? I mean, I could see how some parents would be concerned about getting involved.

SOPHY: Yeah. I think the bottom line is those kids are doing it because, as I said earlier, they're pushing limits to see who's going to react and discipline them or give them some reaction. So you give it to them in a strong way and then they back right down. You talk to them in a manner that doesn't have any wavering in your voice and you're like, look, guys, cut it out. It's not cool. And walk away.

They get it. They want that. They want somebody to tell them where the line is. They just are showing off because they're uncomfortable within their own skin. Their parents are afraid of them, but you're not is what you want to show them.

KEYES: I'm just going to ask one last question 'cause we are running a little against the clock. But, Jolene, is there a time that you think it's okay to just tell somebody to butt out? If some mother steps to you and says, how dare you treat your child that way, is there a time that you could just say, yeah, this is none of your business, I have this?

IVEY: Well, if I believe that they're wrong. I mean, sometimes if you're going off and you see that you're wrong, you really should accept that, yeah, you're right, I was wrong. But if the other parent is one of those parents who's a little too soft, in your opinion, you might have to just say, excuse me, I've got this, you know, thank you for your opinion. Adios.

KEYES: Dr. Sophy?

SOPHY: You can, but what you do is you do it in a reassuring way. Like, I see why you're upset, but, listen, I got it under control. And you say back off in a very polite way and you give them reassurance that they don't need to take your license plate number and call the police.

KEYES: Thank you all for your insights and a very interesting conversation. Dr. Charles Sophy is the medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. And our regular moms, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker joined me here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

IVEY: Thanks, Allison.

TUCKER: Thank you.

SOPHY: Thank you for having me.

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