Why We Won’t Scold Other People’s Kids

Sara Roberts may be the most mortified teenager in America.

Against her will, her mother and stepfather placed a bumper sticker on her car. It asks, “How’s My Teen Driving?” and has a toll-free number for motorists to call.

“I don’t like it, but my parents say I can’t drive without it,” says 16-year-old Sara. In her hometown of Highland, Mich., her peers laugh at her sticker.

Sara is a guinea pig for the bumper sticker because her stepdad, Les Ladd, is the entrepreneur developing this teen-surveillance service. Mr. Ladd admits, however, that the concept is a tough sell. He is finding that parents don’t want to offend their kids by making them drive with the stickers, or they feel strangers shouldn’t be judging their offspring.

This isn’t surprising. As a society, we have grown reluctant to reprimand kids — not just our own, but other people’s, too. Yes, in theory, we believe it takes a village to raise a child. But lately, the village feels pressure to keep its collective mouth shut.

To combat the problem, child advocates are trying to bring back the concept of “parents beyond parents.” They tout research showing that kids who receive constructive input from an array of adults are less likely to use drugs, lie to parents or commit crimes. Michael Gurian is co-founder of the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo., an educational training organization that compiles child-rearing research. He believes problems such as anorexia, depression and chronic stress in children are exacerbated because kids today often live in communities where nobody but their nuclear families seems to care much about them.

I once interviewed radio host Garrison Keillor, who lamented that “adults no longer dare to influence other people’s children” by telling them to quiet down or tuck in their shirts. In his novel “Wobegon Boy,” Mr. Keillor longs for the era when “you didn’t smart off to elders, and if a lady you didn’t know told you to blow your nose, you blew it.”

But the truth is, today’s kids often welcome discipline by outsiders, even if they roll their eyes.

Alana Schemers, 15, tells of inviting a male classmate to her home when her mother wasn’t there. A neighbor saw the boy enter the house and called Alana’s mother on her cellphone. Within minutes, Alana heard from her mom, who told her the boy had to leave. Alana still likes her neighbor, and sees the wisdom in the woman’s decision to butt in. “It could prevent me from doing something stupid in the future,” she says.

I met Alana last week in Troy, Mich. She was part of a focus group of teens organized by Mr. Ladd to get input on his bumper stickers. He explained to them that the program — which is slated to cost $59.95 a year — could save lives by reining in teens’ reckless driving.

Even though Mr. Ladd dangled the prospect of free gas coupons if kids allowed stickers on their cars, many echoed the words of Megan Arnold, 16: “I can’t see myself driving with that sticker, but when I have kids, I’ll want to know how they’re driving.”

Too many parents, however, don’t want to be told when their kids do something wrong. They are defensive, worrying that any criticism reflects poorly on them. Or they are overprotective, fearing every stranger is a potential predator. Or they are indulgent, thinking they must protect their little darlings’ self-esteem.

Dan McCauley, owner of A Taste of Heaven Cafe in Chicago, caused an uproar last fall when he posted the following sign: “Children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices.” Offended local moms mounted a boycott. Widespread media coverage followed.

Since then, supportive customers have shared with Mr. McCauley tales of their exasperation when they reprimanded other people’s kids. One woman told him she was at a Starbucks, and a little girl kept opening artificial sweetener packets and sprinkling them around the room like fairy dust. “Honey, should you be doing that?” the woman asked the girl.

“I beg your pardon!” snapped the girl’s mother. “Don’t call my daughter ‘honey,’ and whatever she does is none of your business!”

Mr. McCauley laments such stories. “We have a society now where the assumption is that children should never be addressed,” he says. “But we have to keep reminding kids that they’re part of a community, sharing space with other people.”

Victoria Juster of Long Grove, Ill., serves on her local school board. One day, driving behind a school bus, she saw two preteens hitting and choking each other in the last row. When the bus stopped to drop off students, Ms. Juster asked the driver for permission to board and then addressed the battling kids.

Parents of those students later demanded that she resign from the school board, saying she had no right to get on the bus and reprimand their children. Ms. Juster was later cleared by a school-district investigation.

Today, she stands by what she did. She fondly recalls adults of earlier eras who felt a duty to discipline. As a child, she would visit a friend’s home, and if she misbehaved, her friend’s mom would make her sit in the corner. Today, she says, if she put a neighbor’s kid in the corner, “I’m sure he’d never be allowed back in my house” — or his parents would call their lawyer.

That mind-set must change, says Mr. Gurian. His institute advises mothers and fathers to share parenting duties by creating a team of five or 10 friends, colleagues, neighbors or fellow parishioners. These people can mentor, admonish and love your children, and you can do the same for theirs.

Kids seem to yearn for this sort of attention. As 15-year-old Joe Cypert put it at the teen focus group: “It would be cool to live in a neighborhood like that.”

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