The Slap all over again. Is it ever okay to discipline someone else's child?

Bern Morley


“This place is The Slap just waiting to happen.”

That was the first thing I said to my husband when we moved into a place housing over 400 residents – with at least a third of those being children- all sharing a communal pool and gardens.

Sure enough, my premonition didn’t take long to come true.

If you’re not familiar with The Slap, the book by Christos Tsiolkas that was adapted into a TV series, it was about the fallout from an incident at a suburban BBQ where a man slaps another couple’s child for hitting his own. It brings into focus the subject of disciplining another’s child and the validity of this.

Clearly, the question of whether it is ever okay to punish another’s child is an emotive one and one that divides many. Was the boy doing something wrong? Yes. Did he deserve to be punished for it? Most definitely. Should this discipline have been delivered by someone who was not his parent? The general consensus was that no, even though there was a dangerous situation being created by the boy, the discipline should have been left to the parent.

This action – the slap – was also delivered in a momentary fit of rage, one where the man’s first instinct was to protect his own child. This is an instinct that, as parents, we all possess – the difference being, of course, that a rational and responsible adult should be able to recognise that it’s not okay to harm another in this way. The difference between adults and children is that we should have learned to control our temper and actions.

My own similar situation also happened in a public space.

There’s a middle-aged man who liked to come down to the communal pool and swim laps on a daily basis. I’d noticed him quite often, although I’d had no interaction with him. Until this day.

The book – and then mini-series – The Slap explored the far-reaching consequences of disciplining someone else’s child.

The pool is quite large, but there are over 280 apartments in the block of buildings, which is a converted former asylum. It’s fair to say that if you get the pool to yourself you need to call the Vatican, because you’ve just witnessed a miracle.

This day I was sitting watching Sam, my then-10-year-old, swimming around with another boy he’d just met, playing some imaginary game. They weren’t being loud or silly; in fact, they were hunting for bugs on the side of the pool. After watching them for a while, I went back to reading my book.

I looked down to read again- only to hear a scream, then look back up to see the man grab Sam by the shoulders and violently fling him out of his way, hurling him through the air. Apparently, Sam had fallen in from the side of the pool and accidentally gotten in his way.

I jumped up and yelled out to the guy, asking him what the hell did he thought he was doing.

The guy’s response? To tell me I needed to “control my kid better.”


Why didn’t I confront him?

I think I was in shock, to be honest. To see him grip my son around the shoulders like that, the look of unadulterated rage on his face, absolutely threw me. Then, before I could grasp what had just happened, the man had gone.

I’m not saying that children shouldn’t be told off by their parents for something like this. Of course, had I thought Sam was being a pest that day, I would have removed him myself. But he wasn’t, and this was a communal pool.

Besides that, I was right there. if anyone was going to have words with my child, it should be me.

So, the question remains: is there ever a situation where it is okay to discipline another person’s child?

Physically? No. Never. However, I do understand that at times, words need to be said, especially when the parent isn’t either in attendance or paying attention to the situation.

1. In a public situation

Say you’re at a park or in a general public space. Unless there’s a genuine safety issue, where children are hurting other children, you shouldn’t step in. If, however you can see a situation escalating, or children are pushing etc, choose gentle words delivered calmly to diffuse the situation.

Toddlers are notorious for a bit of argy-bargy and most parents are there to halt it – but if for some reason they’re not stepping in, then a quiet “we don’t push our friends” phrase usually works a treat. If not, simply  remove your own child.

2. When you have a child visiting your house

What about when you have a child over for a play and they start to misbehave? Is it okay then? Obviously again, if there’s a safety issue, you are going to have to have words. But again, rational conversation. Tell the visiting child that you there are rules that everyone in your household has to follow and if they misbehave, you’ll have to end the playdate early.

Bern recommends a calm and collected, “in our house we don’t jump on the furniture.”

3. Friend or family member visiting with children         

I’ve been in this situation so many times – that awkward situation when a family member takes it upon themselves to tell off your child for something (usually just being a kid) in your own home.

What, though, if you have family members around and they are doing nothing to curtail their own child’s bad behaviour? If they’re blind to the fact that their little angel is jumping all over your couch and saying absolutely nothing?

I find the best way to stop it is to subtly say something like “In our house, we don’t jump on the furniture.” Hopefully, the parent will pick up on this and take over the policing from there.

I understand that every situation is unique but I think if we can all agree that it’s NEVER okay to physically discipline another person’s child, then we are on the same page. Remember, a split-second emotive reaction – as in The Slap – can have consequences that last forever.

Have you ever disciplined another person’s child? Would you?

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