Other People’s Parenting: When (if Ever) to Interfere
It was an extreme example, but it struck a nerve.
Last week, at a Walmart in Texas, a female bystander spotted a man pushing a shopping cart with a crying child’s hair wrapped around the handle. The woman intervened, and eventually called the police for help. The incident set off a debate on when bystanders should say something about another parent’s discipline .
But what happens when safety is not at stake? Is there ever a right time to tell someone you don’t agree with a parenting decision?
Gretta Keene, a Brooklyn psychologist, had a friend who was adopting a child and was insistent on never telling the child. Having dealt professionally with patients on the sensitive subject, Ms. Keene was aware of potential issues up ahead. This was a close friend, so she offered free advice: “I thought there were other ways of handling the situation and just said her choice might have unintended consequences,” she recalled.
How was this received? “She reacted by cutting off our longtime relationship.”
John Jacobs, a psychiatrist and associate professor of family therapy at N.Y.U., said, “You are always taking a gamble when discussing others’ lives, especially when it comes to their children. It’s a dangerous place to go and usually doesn’t end well.”
Two couples I know in New York reached a tense standoff when one couple’s son decided to cancel a planned spring break with the other boy. Why? Because he got a “better” offer. The boys remained friends, though the parents did not.
Similar conflicts also play out onscreen. NBC’s limited series “The Slap” dealt with the repercussions of one child’s misbehavior at a party. The incident led to cruel accusations among the adults, broken friendships and eventually, a lawsuit. The premiere of this season’s “Blue Bloods” featured the paternal paragon, played by Tom Selleck, saying to an old friend, “I would never try to tell you how to show your love to your own son, but maybe you could try seeing him for what he’s become.” The response? “Go to hell, Frank!” In the recent film, “Captain Fantastic,” Viggo Mortensen’s character is raising five kids in such an unorthodox way that the children’s grandparents fight for custody.
Indeed, the most daunting emotional tightrope involves questioning the parenting of our own children-turned-parents. With the number of “grand-boomers” growing every year, this problem is not going away. Theirs, after all, is the generation that not only thinks it will be forever young, but too often feels it is forever right. “It’s a huge issue for them to deal with their own kids’ raising of children,” said Meryle H. Gellman, a Los Angeles therapist. “Each family has to find the way because the last thing you want is disconnection.”