General Question

wundayatta's avatar

When is it appropriate to intervene in parents' childrearing practices?

Asked by wundayatta (58635points) June 3rd, 2009

There are many places where one can find out research about best parenting practices. Yet parents often disagree with those practices, or just do things the old-fashioned way, perhaps because they were raised that way, and it didn’t appear to hurt them. Spanking is one example of this kind of divide, but I’m sure there are others.

I guess this is a cost-benefit kind of question. Suppose it becomes very clear that disciplining children can be done most effectively without physical discipline of any kind. But spanking isn’t all that bad. Many of us were spanked, and it didn’t scar us forever. Besides which, sometimes our children just aggravate us so, we can’t help it. They learn from it. So, doesn’t that justify it? It’s merely a difference in parenting philosophy, and we’re all correct in how we choose to parent, so long as we don’t go across the line into abuse.

Or, does a community have a right to intervene with parents, and to educate them about best practices, and to do their best to stop parents from physically or emotionally hurting their children? Under what circumstances does a community have this right? Does it have to be only in cases where the life of the child is endangered, or are there other cases where it would be appropriate?

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45 Answers

cookieman's avatar

With strangers or acquaintences: Unless the child is being physically abused, emotionally abused, and/or neglected, it’s none of your business. And then, you contact Child Protective Services.

With friends and family: It really depends on your relationship with the parents. I have certainly made suggestions or shared best-practices with my nephew, cousin, and a few friends. But I was confident my ideas would be considered despite being unsolicited. If they are open to further discussion past my initial suggestion, I’ll continue along. However, if they shut down the communication or make it clear my advice is unwelcome, I let it go.

mammal's avatar

there are moments when i have considered spanking the parents

chelseababyy's avatar

When it goes from a spanking and a grounding, to choking and not letting the child have ANY contact with anyone outside of the house, which also means taking the child out of public school, as a punishment.

My grandma intervened and now my mother HATES her. It’s sad because my Grandma did the right thing, but obviously my mother thought what she, herself was doing was the right thing.

RedPowerLady's avatar

I think a society has the responsibility to intervene with parents, and to educate them about best practices, and to do their best to stop parents from physically or emotionally hurting their children.

I know that historically communities that did not find spanking socially acceptable had far lower rates of physical abuse in general, especially child abuse. This does not mean that the law needs to be involved in cases where there is no abuse. Rather it is a community effort to make the practice un-acceptable.

I think the responsibility of the institution lies on providing educational opportunities, stress-relief opportunities, quality day care, and finally criminal persecution of abuse. Simply passing laws will not do any good, one way or the other.

On an individual level I think it is important for us to intervene when we expect abuse. But also I always intervene if something is taking place in my own space. For example, we do not allow spanking of any child in our home. I also think that it is appropriate in some circumstances to provide parents with information about alternative discipline practices if you don’t agree with their current ones as long as you do it tactfully and then butt out.

I also think it is very important to consider that spanking often crosses the line into abuse even if it is one or two times instead of chronic abuse. Once parents let anger rule them it is hard to stop.

crisw's avatar

Individually, I would intervene not only in cases of abuse, but in cases where the children are impinging on the rights of others, or are in danger of getting hurt.

As two examples- I was in Target the other day while two kids were using a display case as a backdrop for a handball court, slamming a ball from the toy section against it (their mother was nearby, chatting away on a cell phone and ignoring this.) I told them that a store is not a playground and that this wasn’t appropriate behavior. (They kept right on doing it.) I then went to tell a store employee what was going on.

Whenever I take my dogs out, if kids come running up to them and hug or pet them, I always let them know that they should always ask a dog’s owner before petting the dog; that some dogs don’t like it when people that they don’t know touch them. (My dogs are kid safe, but, as we all know, many dogs aren’t!) Amazingly enough, many parents just let their kids run up to strange dogs. The same thing when I see kids going up to crates at dog shows- many very swet dogs are extremely protective of their crates. It amazes me that parents treat a trip to a dog show like a day at the zoo…but that’s another story!

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

When the parents behavior clearly puts their child in harm’s way.

casheroo's avatar

@crisw That’s one of my biggest pet peeves as well! If my son sees a dog, he is totally wanting to pet it, but always leans into me needing permission first. I hold onto my son, and ask the owner if we can even come near the dog, because some dogs you just can’t even go near them or their owner while on a walk (like our dog) And dog shows! My gosh, we went to one recently, they had way too many kid stuff going on. We kept our son in his stroller, and if dogs were nice enough, they could come to him (and some did, and stole his food lol)

I don’t intervene in the way strangers parents. I do say things to friends of mine, educating then on things like extended rear facing, the benefits of cosleeper and how to do it safely, we all exchange stories and advice on discipline.

I have had to grab children while at the park, and get them out of harms way. It’s amazing how many parents just sit and ignore their children when they go to parks.

Blondesjon's avatar

This is not going to gain me any fans but Louis CK brings up a good point in his stand-up.

When you see the mom at Wal-Mart start melting down on her kid you are only seeing that. You aren’t seeing the eighteen hours of constant whining, back talk, and misbehaviour that led up to it.

We are all human and I will be the first to step forward and admit that I am not a perfect parent. I have been snappy and petty with my kids. The important thing is that we have always worked it out and they all three know they are loved.

@daloon . . .Didn’t you post on another thread that you were treating your children better now? How’s that working out?

RedPowerLady's avatar

I agree with those thoughts as well. Sometimes you have to intervene for the child’s safety or for another child’s safety. Like when you see bullying at the playground, sometimes it is a bet severe. Or the other day when I was in the supermarket and saw a lost kid stealing candy out of the bulk bins. I knew he was lost because he was probably 2 years old and still in diapers. When I returned him to mom, who took awhile to find, she didn’t seem the least bit scared her kid had been gone. Now that is scary business! Not to mention that one of my co-workers had the cops at the complex where she works because someone’s toddler had “got out of the house” and was playing in the street. So I suppose safety comes in many forms.

dynamicduo's avatar

My initial reaction is to say “Never”, but I know this isn’t true. Certainly if the child is in danger or in serious harm, this crosses a line where intervention is necessary for the child’s safety.

Things like whether to spank or not, the consequences of giving the crying kid a candy to shut them up, etc, are really none of anyone else’s concerns and it would be absolutely rude to impose your views on them.

Physical and emotional abuse come in many different forms, and short of mind police, there is no way anyone could actively protect all children all the time. You’d need to have lawmakers determining what was appropriate or not to think or say about your child, what constitutes abuse… not a world I’ll live in at all.

LexWordsmith's avatar

When a near-consensus of society would consider the parent’s actions child abuse.

For research on outcomes, see the work of Judith Rich Harris—f.e., No Two Alike. According to my understanding of her interpretations of the studies she cites, absent outright abuse, about 50% of an adult’s personality is influenced by genetic and developmental factors, the other 50% by the child’s adolescent peer group.

YARNLADY's avatar

I don’t know where you are getting your information about kids who have been spanked growing up without any problems. Maybe that is the real reason for the suicide rate, the divorce rate and the amount of depression we see in today’s world.

The success or failure of the spanking method should not be the criteria we use, anyway. Just on the face of it, hitting other people is not a civilized way to handle our problems, even if the end result is to instill the behavior we want.

The best way to train another human being in the most civilized way possible, is to show them the acceptable behavior and give a reason to want to follow that way.

Blondesjon's avatar

@YARNLADY . . .your last sentence could easily describe a swat on the butt

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon Only if you consider hitting another person to be acceptable, which I don’t.

Blondesjon's avatar

It’s not hitting. It’s correcting. Your way works for you. My way works for me. We both agree we have well adjusted children. Where’s the problem?

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon If you don’t see hitting other people as a problem, there’s nothing I can add.

bea2345's avatar

You have to interfere if a child is in danger or suffering unnecessarily. Even if the intervention only takes the form of a report to the authorities.

Blondesjon's avatar

@YARNLADY . . .All other mammal species use not only warning noises to show their young that they are misbehaving they also use nips and bites that aren’t meant to truly hurt but to get the young’s attention.

You are attatching malice where there isn’t any.

cak's avatar

I’m not going to get into the entire thing, but I do have a question. Who’s to say that one method is better than the other? Someone may read a book that they’ve decided is the bible of parenting and the other person sees it as a bunch of crap. I don’t think any single parent has the answer, but some think they do have the end-all advice to parenting.

You intervene when a child is being physically hurt. That is one obvious point.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon I still look forward to the day the rest of the human race completely overcomes the animal nature inside of us, and becomes truly civilized, but I’m not holding my breath, and it’s clear I’ll never live to see it.

Blondesjon's avatar

@YARNLADY . . .That is humankind’s problem. We have lived outside of nature for so long that it has become unnatural to us.

How great is a civilization that paves it’s forests and spawns serial killers, rapists, and politicians?

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon Maybe they were spanked as children, so they now take it out on others. Mismanagement of resources is not a very good excuse to hit people.

Blondesjon's avatar

@YARNLADY . . .Isn’t that a bit of an insult to those that have overcome an abusive childhood? They’re not all monsters just because they got their hands slapped for reaching for the hot stove.

cak's avatar

@YARNLADY—You know, my parent were good parents, they spanked. They stopped, but I don’t think they were these awful people for spanking. I have spanked my children a handful of times, mostly to get their attention -really fast, in a dangerous situation. I’m not an awful person.

I don’t think you can vilifiy all people that have spanked. Just as I don’t think you can assume all serial killers and other criminals were spanked (abused – whatever).

I also don’t think there is malice behind spanking. Not when done as a punishment or as a quick reaction to a dangerous situation. There is a difference between a spanking and abuse. I will not debate this endlessly, I know some people don’t believe that there is a difference. I’m just one that thinks there is a difference.

YARNLADY's avatar

@cak @Blondesjon My parents also used an occasional spanking to correct our behavior, and I turned out alright also. If mankind can’t grow and become better each generation, then my vision of a future is doomed.

Blondesjon's avatar

that’s a bit pessimistic

cak's avatar

@YARNLADY I don’t think it hinges on spanking, though. There are so many factors for that belief, that it seems a bit much to zero in on just this one issue.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon touche
@cak I’m keeping within the scope of this one question, yes there is lot more to it

cak's avatar

@YARNSLADY – makes sense.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@YARNLADY I support your beliefs on this issue. As a matter of fact I have researched spanking myself extensively. And I have seen it’s effects from the counseling perspective.

Just throwing this out there. But you know not all societies have historically spanked their children. I know that in my culture we did not use spanking as a disciplinary method. So that kinda puts a pinch in the idea that spanking is innate to our instinctual or animal behavior or that it is even necessary.

And whether the child is “hurt” by the act or not we should consider the idea that has brought us much good elsewhere. Use the least threatening/invasive/hurtful means possible. Spanking is not necessary so why use it? Even if it does not “hurt” the child.

wundayatta's avatar

I guess it comes down to whether we consider a difference to be a non-harmful one or not. I.e., are non-spankers convinced enough that they want to convince society to make spanking a forbidden practice? Or can non-spankers let spanking slide? And if so, how far? When does spanking cross the border into abuse?

I doubt if any of us think of ourselves as being abusive to our children, and yet, I’ll bet that there’s someone out there who would interpret our behavior as abuse.

Where do you draw the line on intervention? How far are non-spankers willing to go to stop other parents from spanking? If non-spankers are willing to not intervene, what does that mean?

YARNLADY's avatar

@daloon I’m mostly in favor of education. I don’t think it would be out of line to require counseling and parenting training for every person who wants to have a child.

As far as intervention, I am willing to leave that up to the law, although I am willing to report to the authorities if necessary. I was a Foster Care provider for many years, and saw the results of both physical and mental abuse.

Prevention in advance is a desireable goal.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Short Answer: Can I, as a non-spanker, let spanking slide? Psychologically I cannot. But legally I do think there needs to be boundaries. Communally I think there should be more pressure to confront this practice.

I can let non-harmful spanking slide legally because I don’t think every swat on the but deserves to be criminalized and I do not think that every swatter needs to be villafied. Of course the term non-harmful then needs to be defined and that may be exhaustive.

However I do strongly advocate that we educate and communally pressure spanking out of existence.

I also agree with @YARNLADY and do not think that childhood development and parenting classes should be required, perhaps in high school.

I explained what I do personally above as far as intervening so I won’t re-hash it. But I am also willing to advocate and to teach. And to be part of groups that work towards changing the practice of spanking on a societal level.

cak's avatar

You do realize that spanking isn’t the only thing that can harm a child, right? (by the way – my version of a “spanking” was a quit swat on the butt…one, to stop in a harmful situation)

What about parents that snap and yell at a child? What about those that use sarcasm and demean their children.

I guess the spankers are the only ones branded with a scarlet “S” – right?

cookieman's avatar

My FIL never laid a hand on my wife growing up. He wouldn’t dream of hitting a female.

So instead he called her a whore, convinced her she was stupid and refused to speak to her for days as “punishment”.

Thank god he never spanked though. Then he would have been a bad parent.

YARNLADY's avatar

@cprevite @cak I made reference @YARNLADY above to both physical and mental abuse. It sounds like you are saying they should have been hit instead, or because yelling is bad, hitting is OK.

Prevention through parenting classes be a better alternative than either physical or mental abuse.

cookieman's avatar

@YARNLADY: Understood.

But I agree with @cak that a swat in the behind does not rise to the level of abuse. I’m sure many of us have seen or experienced true abuse.

I think the ocassional swat may be warranted under certain circumstances. Some parents believe in spanking as a means of dicipline. To catorgirize all hitting as abuse is dangerous.

An example: When my wife was a probation officer, she handled a lot of sex offender cases. All the horrid stuff you can imagine. This one “client” was arrested because he walked by his open window naked, after a shower, toweling off. Lady accross the street at a bus stop saw him, told a cop – who promptly went upstairs and arrested the guy. As he already had a record for shoplifting, he was given probation and made to register as a sex offender.

If you personally believe that “all hitting is wrong”, then great, but to suggest that standard be held to all parents is the first step in making a swat on the behind abuse which could result in a visit from CPS.

wundayatta's avatar

@cak Personally, I’m against all forms of discipline that hurt more than they help. The issue at hand is separating them out. Some would make a clear distinction such as an action that creates physical pain vs one that does not. They might not look at nuances such as how hard the spank was, or what circumstances the spank was given in. Others will. Hence the question.

Similarly, mental or emotional abuse is a concern of mine. I think, compared to physical actions, with mental abuse, it is more difficult to decide whether to intervene at all, and if so, under what circumstances. When do mental or emotional actions rise to the level of abuse? Given the difficulty of answering that question, if you are an intervener, when will you intervene?

There are times when I would like to intervene but I don’t. When I see a mother yelling at a two-year old about stopping a behavior that one shouldn’t even expect a five-year old to stop, I want to intervene. But there is a lot that stops me. First of all, how much do I want to get involved? It takes a long time to explain what’s wrong, and usually parents do this because they have a short fuse, or are in a hurry, or don’t know any different. I can’t provide a child-rearing class on the street. (This is also true concerning spanking).

So I don’t think I would intervene in any emotional abuse situation if it were a stranger. If it were a neighbor, then I might not confront them personally, but I might get professionals involved. This is also true for spanking.

I think that only if I saw someone hitting their child so hard that it seems to be very cruel or dangerous to the child would I intervene. Even in that case, I don’t know whether it would be a good thing or not. For, as soon as I was out of sight, or as soon as they got home, the parent might take it out on the child even more viciously, as if the child were responsible for my intervention.

I agree with @YARNLADY and @RedPowerLady about parenting education in high school, and maybe even later, but, of course, you can’t mandate that, and even if you could, you couldn’t make people pay attention. I also don’t know about the effectiveness of social pressure in these cases, because there is always the concern about what happens behind closed doors. People might make nice in the face of social pressure, but redouble their violence behind closed doors.

That’s why I asked the question. I don’t know what people think about in making these decisions, and I don’t know if they think about the consequences of intervention the way I do.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@cak I know that I am not saying that spankers should be villafied or branded. In fact I said quite specifically they should not. I am just advocating for alternatives because I believe it is not necessary. Also, I do think you have a great point and that is there are other forms of child rearing that are quite alarming such as yelling at children and all other forms of emotional abuse.

@daloon I believe you can mandate parenting class in high school. They mandate health class, sex education, economics, government, physical education etc.. A whole handful of useful classes that aren’t necessarily related to academics but moreso related to living life. Also social pressure has worked historically to rid of spanking as I’ve mentioned previously. Also some countries have had huge success in pressuring out domestic abuse. And others have had success using some non-traditional means with sexual abuse. So there is so evidence to back up the idea that communal pressure can be quite effective. Once that attitude shift takes place you find a lot less stress happening behind closed doors.

@cprevite I just want to say that I agree that a swat on the butt should not warrant a call from CPS. In fact I’ve said so in both my responses. I do not think we should raise the “abuse bar” legally to include spanking. And I don’t even necessarily think that all hitting is abuse. I am a believer that “all hitting is wrong” but I think there are more valid ways to address that belief than using the law, such as community education.

It seems to me that some people feel this is an all-or-nothing scenario. I, personally, am not advocating spanking laws. I am not advocating that all spanking is abuse. What I am advocating is parenting education, childhood development classes, and community pressure that focuses on non-spanking alternatives. Education is never a bad idea especially if it leads in a direction that gives us more parenting options. Like I’ve said historically spanking was not necessary and societies lived without it. And today we can achieve the same, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean that anyone who has given their child a “swat on the butt” is a bad person by any means.

Blondesjon's avatar

@daloon . . .is your house in such an order as to merit your advice?

cak's avatar

@RedPowerLady – I do realize that you did not sound like you were vilifying spankers. Your tone was one of moderation.

I think the thing is, before people start pointing fingers at everyone and saying this way is the right way, not that – people have to take into account (I’m not just talking about spanking) different cultures. I think they have to take into account the religious beliefs of family. There are many factors, ones that some might not take into consideration.

Verbal, mental, physical abuse – there is a difference between parenting and cruelty. Being stern, isn’t abuse. Being an ass is.

I have intervened twice. One time a child was jerked up by the arm and spun around out of a lot of anger. A classic way to get a spiral fracture – common in abuse cases. However, I didn’t go over wagging my finger in judgment. Nor did I assume to hold a parenting class on the street. I really didn’t say anything about the actual action, I asked the lady where I could find an item. I didn’t need what I asked for, but I did want to break the tension. It was enough to let her know someone saw what was going on.

The second time, it was more of verbal abuse – heavy abuse. I did about the same.

The problem with intervening, you don’t know if that anger will be carried over to the house. Both times, I wondered what the true outcome was and worried that maybe I did the wrong thing. Street classes on parenting might cause more abuse; or, you have just accused someone of something that maybe you didn’t truly see what was fully going on.


I have an aunt with Down’s Syndrome. She goes to a workshop, daily and is dropped of by a county driver at my parent’s house. A few years back, my father was reported for abuse, by the driver because of a situation he thought he saw. My dad always opened the side door for her (she went in threw the garage) and reached out for her lunchbox. This day, she lost her footing on the steps and to keep her from falling really hard and getting injured, my father grabbed her and pulled on her, hard, to keep her from falling. Now, part of the driver’s view was obscured due to some cabinets. What he saw was a man being ruff with my Aunt. Not a man saving her from danger.

A week later, my mom opened the mail, there was something from Social Services, DSS. It didn’t seem odd, since my Aunt’s program is through them; however, the letter revealed that they were being investigated – particularly my father, for abusing my Aunt. They were thoroughly investigated and eventually cleared; but, that didn’t happen until neighbor’s, co-workers, other family members (me) and friends were questioned. All because someone saw something that appeared to be abuse.

Keep that in mind while passing judgment on a situation.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@cak Oh good I’m glad, I was hoping my tone was coming across appropriately.

When it comes to cultural practices, now that would be a very interesting study. I know we have studied different discipline practices among cultures in the U.S. and there have been some interesting results. One being that spanking done by African American families seems to be more effective, I found tons of independent research that stated this. It was interesting information. I’d like to see information that extends cross-culturally and cross-nationally on this issue. I know that in my culture we have very interesting disciplinary practices, not spanking, but interesting nonetheless.

wundayatta's avatar

@cak I really like your idea about intervening by trying to redirect a situation into something completely unrelated. That’s a great idea!

RedPowerLady's avatar

Me too, in fact it is a fantastic therapeutic technique

kruger_d's avatar

RE: behavior around dogs. I agree that many parents don’t adequately teach correct behavior around animals, but this stems from a larger problem in the US that adults often assume it is OK to approach/interact with an animal, even a stranger’s. And of those that ask permission, many are offended when told “no.” This would rarely, if ever, happen in Europe.

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