Your Child Was Out Of Line

When I was waiting to buy ice cream at a beach community near New York two months ago, I overheard something I haven't been able to forget. A 10- or 11-year-old boy standing in front of me made a smirky comment to his friends about how there were "too many Chinese people around." He was most likely referring to my 7-year-old daughter, who is adopted from China. Luckily she didn't hear what he said. But I did—and I didn't say anything. I didn't know the kid, and his parents weren't around. I told myself that it wouldn't accomplish anything and that it was none of my business. And I wasn't sure what to say in any event. My first impulse—"Do your parents know what a racist little monster you are?"—seemed a bit harsh. So I kept my mouth shut—and I still regret it.

I had bought into one of the many parenting taboos that have sprung up since I was a kid: no correcting other people's children. Maybe if it's your best friend's kid, or a child who is at a playdate at your house, you can politely suggest that throwing sand is a bad idea. But when I asked if it's ever appropriate to discipline other people's kids on a message board at UrbanBaby.com, posters recoiled. "Big No," was one typical response. Others said not unless a child is in physical danger.

The idea that we should reserve any editorial comments for our own little darlings has become so widely held that "Mad Men," the wonderful and creepy AMC series about a New York advertising agency in 1960, was able to play it for shock value. At a child's suburban birthday party, one of the dads slaps a neighbor's boy across the face for knocking over a drink. The kid's father rushes over—and takes the grown-up's side.

The moment made me gasp. And it drove home the point that our ideas about community parenting shift dramatically over time. In Colonial America, children expected to be disciplined by any adult. "Kids were not raised to internalize their own family's particular values, they were expected to share the community's values," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College. That began to change in the 1830s as class distinctions grew sharper. "Often it wasn't so much 'our family has different rules' as 'our type has different rules'," Coontz says.

In mid-20th-century suburbs, there was enough homogeneity that many parents welcomed a resurgence of community and of common discipline. I feel as though I spent much of my '60s childhood in Minneapolis being scolded by neighbors for cutting through their yards or throwing snowballs.

During the past 15 or 20 years, however, we have become less likely to discipline even our own children, and bristle when others try. "If someone criticizes your child, it's like they've criticized your whole family, your whole life," says Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee."

While I don't love the idea of someone else disciplining my dear daughter, I think it would be hard to object if she were doing something cruel or dangerous. When I say "discipline," of course, I don't mean belting the next kid you see running around in a restaurant. I don't think any adult should ever hit any kid. Yelling isn't acceptable, either, unless someone is about to run into the street.

But it might be good for my kid to hear from another adult. Maybe if I had said something to that boy in the ice-cream line he would have considered—if only for 10 seconds—that his comments might have been hurtful. Or maybe not. When I asked my daughter if other mothers ever chastised her at the playground, she said, "All the time." What does she do? "Ignore them," she answered confidently. So before I get around to correcting your kids, it seems like I still have a little work to do at home.