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You all know adults who undermine your authority when you're out and about with your children. They coddle your kids when they misbehave, and your kids know it and take advantage of the situation to see how much they can get away with, especially when your focus is elsewhere.

I want this to be a relatively generic question if possible, but for one example, my son does this thing where he waits for his little sister to pick a toy, then instantly he wants that toy and none other, even in a room full of toys, and even though it didn't interest him until it interested her. He then starts pestering her about letting him play with it.

He knows we don't tolerate that pestering, and if he came to us we would make him play with something else, so instead he approaches a sympathetic adult, puts on a sad expression, and starts whining about his sister not "sharing." Those adults then treat him like he's the victim, give him lots of attention, and spend a lot of effort finding him a toy he will like better. If we comment on his attitude, they take his side.

First of all, why do adults do this? Second, what are some ideas to either stop it quickly or teach kids not to take advantage of it?

I'm not talking about grandparents or other relatives here. With those people we have had plenty of time to lay out our expectations. I'm talking about people like receptionists, nurses, retail workers, waiters, etc. with whom we don't have time to have a lengthy discussion on parenting.

Consider that our situation might be worse than other parents. My 10 year-old has cerebral palsy, but we still expect her to behave to her potential, which others are not usually aware of. However, it is not in her nature to intentionally take advantage of her situation.

My seven year-old is quite small for his age, and since he is homeschooled, is often out when other kids are in school. I think this leads people to unconsciously set their expectations lower, as if he were preschool age, which he can kind of pass for. He's really the one who milks it for all it's worth, usually at the expense of his sisters.

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    I think the question would be clearer to me with some specific examples (either real examples or made up to fit the question). It's also unclear to me if this is intended primarily to be a question about your family in particular, or if you intend this to be pretty generic; if you intend this just to be generic, you probably don't need to include the last two paragraphs. If you do, then some explicit examples would really help (at least me). – Joe Dec 5 '14 at 20:30
  • I added an example, although I really want it to be generic. I included the information about my family in case other people might think it was a relevant factor. – Karl Bielefeldt Dec 5 '14 at 21:11
  • Thanks, that helps some. From the example and the last two paragraphs, I suspect some of this is fairly specific to your situation; I'll answer the more generic question as I've seen it. You're probably much more often than I in situations with a new responsible party, both due to age difference and (presumably?) frequent visits to medical settings for your daughter. – Joe Dec 5 '14 at 21:15
  • "You all know adults who undermine your authority when you're out and about with your children." In 20 years of parenting, I have never had this problem. – Marc Dec 6 '14 at 3:56
  • @Marc, then enjoy your extreme good fortune – Thorin Schmidt Dec 9 '14 at 18:13
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I think that in the example provided, I can't imagine being in a situation where that was possible; my son is younger than yours (3), but certainly wouldn't ask someone not "in charge" (ie, parents, grandparents, or daycare/teacher) to intervene in a dispute. However my children are younger and in different locations, of course; so I'll answer from what I do have experience with.

In my experience, what I've seen are interactions like the following. I have a three year old and a 20 month old.

Three year old starts throwing a fit because of some reason, in a restaurant. He wants to have a toy that he can't have.

Restaurant waitress: "Oh, poor dear, why don't we get you a lollipop."

What I would suggest in this case, and have done a few times, is firmly telling the waitress:

Thanks, but I've got this under control.

Fortunately for me, the last time we had this interaction (at lunch on the road back for Thanksgiving) the employee didn't do that, but did this:

"Hi, would it help if I gave him a lollipop?

That is of course the 'good' response: asking the parent if they can help, rather than directly providing it. However, nobody's perfect.

Typically the person is asking because they feel sorry for the child and/or uncomfortable with the noise/tantrum/etc., not because they think you're a bad parent - though it's certainly gone that way once or twice.

(1 year old is climbing on something that I know he's completely comfortable with, but is definitely not age appropriate for most similar aged children. Another child's mother sees him and moves over to intercept.)

Careful little guy, you might fall off.

(She proceeds to nearly knock him off. I come over from where I was standing, 3 feet away.)

Hi, thanks, I'm watching him.

Again, firmly telling them that I have things under control. What's important here (and in the first example, but more here) is that I didn't argue with her thesis - that he wasn't safe on the playground equipment - but simply made clear that I was watching things and wasn't concerned. If I argue with her, something like

Hi, thanks, but he's perfectly safe on that.

That opens things up for her to argue with me (even if it's entirely true). By simply asserting my position as parent and making clear that I'm not some dad who goes to the park to read his email and ignore his kids, but pay careful attention to my children without helicoptering. She of course could argue anyway, and that's happened before, but that's less likely if you don't initiate the argument.

To me it comes down to being firm yet positive: asserting your control over the situation as a parent, but not putting the other person down or making them feel bad for their action. Sure, they probably shouldn't be offering your child candy or trying to insert themselves in your children's social development (which toy-sharing is one of the most important!), but if it's not someone you will likely ever see again I think it's better to leave it as a positive thing. Grandma I treat very differently, since she's expected to help us raise the children the way we are trying to, and will see him often; but waitresses or receptionists you can't really do that with, without sounding condescending or likely making the other person feel bad.

I anticipate having more of these problems in the next few years, because my two boys are very close in age and interests - 19 months apart - and we're definitely finding even now that even with relatives who know our general attitude (such as Grandma) it's hard for them to understand our approach, which largely is to allow the kids to work out their relationship on their own without much intervention - as long as they're not physically harming each other significantly, anyway. That's very hard for others to let go, from what we've seen so far, so I can empathize with the difficulty you're having with older children - and I hope the above strategies work for that kind of issue (or I'll find out otherwise I guess!)

  • I don't have any anecdotes, but this is what I'd answer, as well. Over time, your son will notice that his attempts to rally other adults to his side are always defeated by you (or his mother). You will have shown him that technique doesn't work (when you're around). – user11394 Dec 7 '14 at 20:37
  • @Joe, some children are just devious like that. My oldest used to scream and drop to the floor yelling for me to stop hurting her when it was time to go, but she didn't want to leave. My second daughter would just comply. My son? he's just happy to be with Dad, so it doesn't matter where or when we go. In all three cases, your answer is pretty much the right combination. – Thorin Schmidt Dec 9 '14 at 18:18

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