11/07/2011 08:01 am ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

It Takes a Village, Idiot: When (and When Not To) Reprimand Someone Else's Child

Dear Melissa,

Hey there, it's me, JD -- the guy at the park this morning who took the shovel away from your son Jackson/Caleb/Josh/Whatever. I wanted to touch base about the whole situation because I feel like we left things on bad terms and, even though you're a complete stranger, I hate unresolved conflict.

So, what happened is, Jackson/Caleb/Josh/Whatever was taking big scoops of sand and flinging them everywhere. It wasn't a huge deal, kids do things like this, but he got a little wild about it and the sand was getting in other kids hair and eyes. In my "Nice Man" voice, I asked him to be careful and maybe just dig with the shovel instead of throwing the sand. Your little guy, apparently, hasn't embraced the "please don't do that" thing just yet as he continued to throw sand and eventually whacked another kid in the head with the shovel. I'm not sure where you were at this point, maybe on your Blackberry? I don't know. Anyway, I took the shovel away from Whatshisname and, using my not quite as friendly voice, let him know that anymore acting out and we'd be going off to find Mommy together. This, of course, is when you made your appearance. From your perspective , I can imagine you were pretty upset finding your son in tears and some strange man talking to him sternly. You certainly seemed to be as you yelled "What are you doing?" to no one in particular and spirited the Little Prince away.

I'd like to apologize for taking it upon myself to reprimand your son. I'd like to. But I can't because I'm not even remotely sorry. Instead let me say this: Welcome to my village.

Listen, I get that group parenting isn't everyone's cup of tea. I'm fortunate enough to live on a little suburban street where I know all the other parents and their kids. Early in our block-party-co-parenting relationship we all made a deal: at your house, my kid is your kid. If I am not around and he needs to be talked to, put in time out, sent home -- I trust you to do it. I won't interfere or second guess you. Same is true in reverse at my house. This system works really well, my neighbor Patrick is a terrific Dad and Z knows damn well that if Patrick says "put the hose down" it's time to put the hose down. I like it -- not just because it takes some of the pressure off me to watch Z every second when we're out and about -- but because, for Z, this arrangement means that proper behavior isn't something specific to me or Karen being in the room.

Maybe you haven't made this deal or maybe you've simply never thought about it. I'm well aware that some people get uptight when other adults help with the parenting. There's a conventional wisdom that folks have the right to raise their children however they see fit. In fact, I'm sure many people see this as a fundamental right of being a parent. Sorry, but it's not. Your right to raise a narcissistic little terror ends when my child, or any other human being, has to share the planet with him. Yes, children are going to act out and that in and of itself isn't at all a sign of a bad parent or a bad kid. But how you react to this behavior -- indeed whether you're even present to address it all -- dictates whether or not it's going to happen again and again. You owe it to all of us to be present and to teach your child that his actions affect other people.

I am relentless with my kids about saying "please" and "thank you" not because I have an Emily Post fetish but because I want to live in a world where people are more polite to each other as a matter of course. If that's what I want from the world, then I am obliged to give the world the gift of two kind, decent, polite human beings. That's what I am trying to do with Z and Pebbles and I hope that's what you aspire to with yours.

No, that's okay, don't thank me for my profound insight, because I'm not doing it for you. When I decided to take the shovel away from His Majesty, I was really doing something important for my own kids. I'm trying to provide my daughter with a world where there's one less self-absorbed guy out there to break her heart or abuse her; one less unthinking idiot to have a few beers and kill my son on graduation night. As long as you and I are going to raise kids in the same village, I'm going to have to ask you to refrain from being the village idiot when it comes to what kind of child you're sending out into the world.

If that's too much to ask, don't worry, I'm here to help...whether you like it or not.

Your neighbor,