Q&A: Does it matter how friends talk to their kids in front of yours?

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Anonymous writes:

"I am fortunate to live on a friendly street where all the kids play together and the families are all friendly with one another.  It is really nice to have a social outlet at the end of a day spent alone with two young children (2.5 y/o and 6 mo boys).  The kids play most afternoons, so we see a lot of the neighbors.  It is exactly the situation I was hoping to find when we moved here last year. 

The problem I am having is the way one of the other mothers speaks to her children.  Of course I would never say anything, but she can be really unkind and kind of nasty to her girls.  I feel her reactions are far out of proportion to the girls' behavior, which is typical for a 3 and 4 year old.  They are really very good girls.  I know she loves her girls and they are well cared for.  I am sure that the time of day that we usually see each other (4:30-6:00) has a lot to do with her frustration level. 

My concern is how my two year old perceives the way she speaks to her kids.  I want him to be kind and respectful and her behavior is anything but.  He is starting to repeat the words, inflection, and attitudes we display in our home, for better or worse.  My husband and I are both striving to be kind and respectful even as we are disciplining our older son (and the younger one too, when it is time).  We are not always successful, of course, he is two after all, but the "Super Nanny" style of using a firm voice, making eye contact, and following through with discipline (time outs, loss of privileges, etc) usually works for our son.  We do not resort to sarcasm or belittling or name calling.  Of course I am not perfect and it has been hard to see some of my bad habits reflected in his behavior.  But that is what concerns me. 

Sometimes the things my neighbor says to her girls makes me cringe.  If she was a character on a TV show, I wouldn't let my son watch it.  If it was another child acting this way, it would be easier for me to say "That isn't how we speak to people," etc, but since it is another adult, I am at a loss.  Does he pick up on her behavior?  Could being in that situation several times a week affect him?  He seems to be very perceptive of our moods.  I am worried about him being around such negativity.  I don't feel like I am framing this question very well, but I hope you get the gist of what I am asking."

This is the line from your email that hit me: "If she was a character on a TV show, I wouldn't let my son watch it." That's really enough for me to think that the mom's mode is not appropriate.

Unfortunately, I don't know what to do. I'm in the same situation, in that the dad of a friend of one of my sons is belittling and just way too nasty to his son. I don't think my kids are picking up on it, mostly because my ex-husband and I have agreed that we don't want them to hear it. We've made an agreement to try to keep our kids away from that dad when he's talking that way to his son. That's something you could do--distract your son with a toy or game when the mom's in belittling mode so he isn't really listening to her. Soon he'll be older and will have a gut feel for the way he's treated and that it's not the same as all other kids are treated by their parents. (Unfortunately, that opens up another can of worms if you get any "Mom, why does X's mom do Y? Doesn't she love him?" questions. Yeesh.)

The bigger problem, though, and the one that makes me worry, is what's happening to the kids who are being belittled. I don't know how to say to another parent "The way you talk to your child is hurting him" without completely ruining the relationship. And I don't care about my relationship with this man (although I'd miss his wife), but then what happens to his son? He loses my son's friendship, and is just that much more isolated from people who think he should be treated kindly.

Does anyone know what to do? Sometimes I think bearing witness and being kind of him myself might be enough. But at other times I think someone needs to let the kid know (even if it doesn't sink in with the dad) that that way of talking isn't right. But is the risk of further isolation worth it? Is there a way to educate the parent without offending him or her? Has anyone done this successfully?