What Can I Say to Strangers When I'm Uncomfortable With the Way They Interact With My Child?

It can be tricky to navigate how other parents handle your child, especially in public play spaces. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says the more we can focus on what we want to help our children learn from other children and adults, the better for everyone.

An illustration of a mom and two kids at a park.
Photo: Kailey Whitman.

Playground Parent

Over the weekend my 1.5 year old was in a play area designated for smaller kids and I let him run around to burn off some energy. At one point my son was playing with another boy his age on the slide and I was watching from the sidelines. I then see the other child's mom pick my son off the slide so her son can go down it since my son was in the way. I was uncomfortable with her hands-on approach to moving my child but I didn't know what to say. I haven't been to the park a lot with my son because of COVID but I know that this may happen more in the future when we go to shared play spaces more. What can I say to strangers when I don't like the way they handle my child?

—Playground Parent

We usually think of parks and playgrounds as our children's training grounds for social skills, like how to take turns, make a new friend with a snazzy shovel, and negotiate who goes through the tunnel first. However, those of us who have ushered our children through these early years know that parks and playgrounds can also be where we navigate parent social skills too.

The ideal, which takes a lot of practice, is a combination of assertiveness and flexibility (just like with our kids!). First, it helps to know where we are okay bending our in-the-home norms, and where we are not. Parents bring to play areas not just bags stuffed with sunscreen and snacks, but our own individual styles and approaches. Just one example of a common mismatch of parenting style is level of supervision. I can personally attest to how much less I hovered with my third wobbly child compared to my first. As this can be an area ripe for parent judging, remember every parent comes with their own personal parenting experience and culture.

Assume the Positive Perspective

In your example, maybe this other mother comes from a background characterized by a more communal approach to parenting where physically moving your child felt natural and helpful, rather than intrusive. From her standpoint, maybe it wouldn't bother her and it didn't occur to her that it might be crossing a line.

This does not mean you do not have a right to your own preferences for your child, but it often helps us communicate more effectively when we approach situations with this "maybe" mindset of curiosity, assuming positive intent. Validating your preferences, however, I do think there is a lesson about physical boundaries and modeling for children that we do not touch each other without permission!

Communication Instead of Confrontation

Many people might make this very simple, and advise "just tell her not to touch your kid!" But as a conflict-averse person myself, I understand how this direct communication could feel like confrontation, with the risk of escalating in public to an unpleasant experience. It's important for you to be comfortable while asserting yourself in a way that protects your child. (Not that he was in harm's way, but in line with teaching a general "adult strangers should not touch you" message.)

I suggest inserting yourself as part of a solution rather than confronting the other parent as being a problem. For example:

  • "Oh, was my son in the way of your son going down the slide? I can help!"
  • "Hi there! I'm his mom, and I'm right here if I need to help him move."
  • The most direct, yet friendly: "Hey, how old is your son? They are so close in age! This age is so tough when it comes to taking turns. Next time, my son doesn't move out of the way, let me know and I'll help out. I think it's better for him when he knows the people who touch him. Thanks!"

Role Modeling for Other Parents

What I hear from your dilemma, however, is another potential problem: the mother who moved your child also interfered with what may have been these toddlers' opportunity to practice useful slide negotiation skills. With appropriate coaching from the sidelines, you can support young children in building critical skills instead of solving the problem for them. Yes, I know they are really young, but I promise you can start now! Toddlers' tiny brains are forming all kinds of new abilities that they need to practice in peer conflicts: verbal skills, emotion regulation, and problem-solving, to name a few.

Even if it's not a top-of-the-slide standoff, there are ways a plenty that young children struggle to share space and objects when in public play areas. Some tips for coaching them in a way that matches their toddler development, and could even teach other onlooking parents some strategies:

  • If two toddlers are jockeying over prime real estate on the play structure, with erupting emotions, narrate and reflect: "You look angry that he is standing where you want to stand!" This builds emotional awareness and expression, which can be a helpful substitute for pushing or biting, for instance.
  • Encourage practicing blooming verbal skills: "Say what you want! You want to go down the slide now. Ask him to move." This models how to communicate verbally instead of physically (a good habit that needs much practice).
  • Contrary to the popular "sharing" pressures, toddlers are too young to understand and cooperate with the directive to "share your toy." What has been shown to work better, is to encourage a child to "let your friend know when you are all done with that toy." Their short attention spans usually come in handy. Hint: if you pick up another toy and pretend to be fascinated, that often makes it the most appealing option, and the originally deemed most desirable toy will be quickly abandoned.
  • Another benefit of short attention spans: toddlers can be easily redirected to another shiny object. "Look at that fun see saw over there!" Problem often solved.

The Bottom Line

Although playgrounds can become "clash of the parenting styles," it doesn't have to with curious and positive approaches to each other. In addition to knowing how you want to respond to other parents, feeling prepared for how you want to supervise your child through public play areas can help you stay focused on your son rather than the potential parent conflicts. You can be one step ahead of these conflicts by keeping an eye on bubbling problems, and having tools ready to keep the attention on the children dealing with each other, which is where young children learn the most.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles