Ask BBB

Q: I have a 2-year-old. Since he was old enough to enjoy it, we’ve walked to the park so he could swing or play on the playground. I’ve had a couple of instances where there were unattended older kids, 8-12, playing nearby, and the kids said or did something super mean to my baby. When talking to the parent isn’t an option, how do you handle these kinds of situations?

Any threat or danger to our children brings out the mother lion in every parent. We are our children’s first and most powerful protector. Of course, you want to step in and handle the situation. And you certainly should.

We are our children’s first teacher. It is not only protecting your child that you are doing when you actively respond to anyone who may be bothering, affronting or just being inappropriate toward your young child.

You are actually teaching your child what is OK and not OK. You are teaching her how to react in certain situations.

You are modeling taking action—expressing your feelings, using your words, offering a possible script (the actual words to use), reacting appropriately. There are so many lessons about social situations for a child to learn from you when you step in and model what to do.

I think it is actually easier when there is no other parent present. Maybe it’s the teacher in me; maybe it’s that I see myself as an advocate for all children. But I would not hesitate to step in with the aggressors when a young child is the victim.

More, I know that almost always children, even teens, will listen to adults who are not their parents. I don’t mean that you go in with guns blazing. I mean you step in and let the aggressor know an adult is there watching and they need to straighten up and fly right.

You didn’t say what the big kids did that was “super mean.” Let’s say they pushed your 2-year-old out of line or cut in front of her. You have two ways to go. One is to talk to the big kids directly, “Hey guys, my child is only 2 years old. I need you to be careful of her. I know you don’t want to hurt her or teach her that pushing ahead is OK.”

A second, equally effective intervention is to say to your child in a voice you want heard by the aggressors (because you are really talking to them), “Oh, Emma, those big kids are not treating you nicely at all. We need to tell them that pushing is not OK. They need to be kind to smaller kids.”

Regardless of what the big kids did, a simple, “C’mon you guys, knock it off. You know better than to be mean to a little child” will work, too.

You seem to think that if the big kids’ parent had been present, you would have known what to do and taken action. My experience is the opposite. Had the other parent been there, it might have been even harder.

You don’t really know how that parent will respond. She may be receptive to your stepping in on behalf of your toddler, or she may get defensive.

Asked why a parent did not say something to another parent, I have heard, “It’s not my place” or “I don’t want to get involved” or “I don’t know how the parent will react.”

To these parents I say, YOUR child is your first priority. Who cares what another parent, one whom you’ll likely never see again, thinks of you?

The lesson here is for your child. The toddler will learn from you how we handle kids who do mean stuff. We speak up. We use words to say what is OK and not OK.

You are preparing him for many more encounters of this kind as he continues to go to the park for many years to come.

Please remember one of the sayings for which I am known: PREPARE THE CHILD FOR THE PATH AND NOT THE PATH FOR THE CHILD.

It starts now!


BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through her website, betsybrownbraun.com.