The Problem With Suggesting Strangers Help Parents Discipline Screaming Children


A story regarding one woman’s idea for dealing with upset, unruly children in public went viral recently. The gist of her idea is that there should be a “special signal” parents can give to other adults, inviting them to intervene if their child is having an uncontrollable meltdown in public.

There are a few reasons one can surmise as to why the writer came up with such an idea. Children do tend to listen to strangers often. I watch in awe as my 2-year-old daughter follows her ballet teacher into dance class and performs every request without a single complaint. I’ve watched her follow the directions of complete strangers when attending events, casting calls, as someone comes and asks her to follow them and stand in a certain space, repeat words and take a seat.

There is something about the power of a stranger that can at times surpass the influence of a parent. Perhaps this is because children know their parents so well that they are aware as to how much they can get away with.

The author of the post said her idea for strangers to intervene and yell at “unruly” children would do three things: shock the child into shutting up, teach “stranger danger,” and allow the child to understand that the rest of the world isn’t going to stand for “bad” behavior, even if their parents do. While the woman behind this idea may have been partly in jest, I do have some concerns as to the idea of being taken seriously.

When reading this article my first thought was, “What sort of effect will this behavior ultimately have on a small child?” Allowing a stranger the liberty of yelling at our children is to invite an onset of social anxiety that could have long lasting, negative
effects. Children scream and cry in public for a variety of reasons. At times it may be because they are tired, or perhaps they don’t want to go grocery shopping; they may feel ill or afraid of something they have seen. Is it right to address a child in distress with something that may distress them more?

Having dealt with anxiety, I’m no outsider to the experience of an anxiety attack in public. It does not matter if I’m surrounded by the security of friends and family; anxiety strikes when it wants, and one is forced to deal with the feelings of fear, embarrassment and stress. When I think about a child growing up with the additional worry of having a total stranger approach for the purpose of yelling at them I cannot see how this is a positive lesson at all. Sure, it will enforce the idea of “stranger danger”  but it will also enforce the idea that people are unkind and even a little scary. I don’t want my daughter to be afraid of going out in public because the last time we went out someone came over and yelled at her. I doubt she would be the friendly child I know and love. If anything, I would imagine she would shrink away from meeting anyone new and even from going new places. Teaching children about strangers is important, but keeping them open enough to socialize is important as well.

To allow another person who is unknown to a child the ability to discipline, scold and possibly scare would be detrimental to the development of the child. They could easily develop a fear of people, crowds, and leaving the house. While I know being a mother can be frustrating at times, I don’t believe handing the reigns over for a stranger is the right answer.

Rather than signaling another adult to scold the child, perhaps the positive solution would be to ask for a second pair of hands to help in comforting the child. This would teach children there are kind people in the world — that there are those who wish to help, thus making them less fearful of unknown persons.

It’s inevitable that children are going to have their share of meltdowns, or even tantrums, in public. It’s part of growing up, but I say it’s better to have the occasional public meltdown than dealing with a child having a meltdown because they are afraid to leave the safety of their home or afraid to be somewhere new.

I can wholeheartedly empathize with any mother dealing with a child melting down in public. I’ve been there, holding my breath as I carry my flailing child out of the store. It’s exhausting, and there are at times needs for some assistance. Some of the greatest stories friends have told me were about the kindness of strangers during a moment of weakness or frustration when dealing with their child. There is no need for strangers to yell at our children who will undoubtedly have feelings of stress and fear.

I would never wish for my child to be afraid of going out in public places, or being in crowds surrounded by mysterious people, and I hope she never experiences anxiety attacks. Children are such impressionable little humans. Do we want to leave an impression of fear and threat of anxiety in their young minds? One has to ask whether the risk is worth the reward, and in this case it most certainly is not.

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Image via Thinkstock – IPG Gutenberg UK Ltd

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