Am I Allowed to Scold My Friends’ Kids?

Answers for modern men.
Aug. 20 2014 4:34 PM

Is It Acceptable to Scold One’s Friends’ Kids?

When and how to correct other people’s children.

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

How much parenting of other people’s children can one get away with? Am I allowed to speak sharply to my friends’ kids?

Thank you for your question.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

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First, we need to dismantle this dismal word “parenting,” which, if it is to mean anything, must refer strictly to the long game of child-rearing. If you are not the parent or guardian of the child in question, you cannot do any “parenting” of him, which may have some advantages when it comes to getting the kid to listen to what you have to say. Because a toddler’s parents’ friends lack parental authority, a toddler may not feel compelled to defy them. It’s possible that he will heed the friends’ gentle suggestions more readily than his own parents’ commands, and maybe you, munching squirrel-like on your broccoli, will even charm him into eating his, while the mother and father sit at the table admiring the cruelty of it all.

Of course, you should always firmly guide the child’s behavior if it’s a life-or-death situation. Say, for instance, you’re gonna jump out the window if you hear “Let It Go” one more time. It’s never wrong to intervene when facing the risk of defenestration—or of a confrontation with a steaming tea kettle or a trembling toy poodle, or with the owner of a scratched Porsche or snatched purse. Nor should you hesitate to remove from the grasp of a toddler a glass of overproof bourbon poured neat: It’s really much better with two ice cubes.

It is always OK to shush children. I mean, it’s OK to shush the petulant sniveling or empty squealing or inconsiderate prattle of children—not the babbling of infants or the urgent cries of distressed tykes. If an 8-year-old insists on talking in a movie theater, or if one of his colleagues is determine to defile a wedding ceremony with sound pollution, say, “Shhh.” If my 3-year-old tries to hijack my conversation with you in order to discuss pirates, say, “Hang on, please, sweetie. I just need to talk to your daddy for a minute.”

When it comes to offering criticism of what children are heard to say, it is better to concern yourself with form than with content. An example: Let’s say that you are viscerally unsettled to hear 4-year-old boys talk about guns, as all boys do; even the son of a perfect pacifist, regularly sheltered against screen violence, will develop a certain fascination with weapons, munitions, and indiscriminate bloodshed. It’s rarely useful to treat his murderous ravings as a “teachable moment.” Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, but to pretend to raze a village, a child needs only a twig, and there’s no point in commenting on the content of his narration of an imaginary small arms attack. But if he says, “I shooted you,” you're only doing him a favor by improving his form: “The correct preterite is ‘shot’.” That said, if a kid turns a Super Soaker on a good set of clothes, it’s totally OK to scold him angrily, and rather cathartic to seize the weapon and give him a taste of his own medicine.

I am curious whether the Gentleman Scholar has any familiarity with, or opinions on, the films of one Mr. Ettore Corvino.

I ask in the service of a larger question: How should a gentleman cope with a situation in which Web searches by parties curious about his history will tend to unearth salacious stories about somebody else?  This topic captured my interest a few months ago when I realized that, just as I committed to a pen name, it was being permanently sullied by one of its actual referents, who will, I suspect, forevermore be the No. 1 Michael Carey on Google.

I don’t think anyone would ever confuse the two of us, but other gentlemen (as well as ladies, and even persons who decline gendered honorifics) surely encounter situations that have the potential for real confusion. Is it considered politic, when taking a job interview, or making the acquaintance of a person one would like to have a personal relationship with (whether friendly or intimate), to say, “So when you Google stalk me, like I know you’re going to, the horrible story that will turn up is not about me.”

Best regards,

Not that Michael Carey

Thank you for the question.

The Gentleman Scholar is only glancingly familiar with the actor who, under the stage name Troy Patterson, starred in some cheapo horror films in the 1950s and ’60s. His interest in that kind of thing doesn’t really extend past Roger Corman classics and specific Tarantino references. But if memory serves, he once watched Bloodlust! (1961), in which “a crazed hunter kidnaps people and turns them loose on his private estate, where he hunts them for sport,” long enough to discern that Patterson’s character was easy prey.

As you say, Mr. Carey, you have nothing to worry about. Anyone looking at your résumé will see that you, unlike the Michael Carey on the nasty bender described in this official report of an Air Force investigation into totally bonkers misconduct, have never overseen nuclear missiles. Thus, the real teachable moment here concerns a lesson drawn from the investigation: Guys, learn how to hold your liquor and, more importantly, learn where not to hold any liquor at all. (Maj. Gen. Carey’s strategic mistake was to hold it in Moscow, at a Tex-Mex bar by Red Square, with two shady women, while harassing the band to let him sit in on guitar, in the middle of a one-man party that began during a layover in Zurich.)

The light joke you propose is a nice tool for people who find themselves at risk of being genuinely confused with rakes, roués, and scoundrels. And, hey, there are contexts where it is swell to leave your new acquaintance with a business card (or some kind of contemporary calling card) that includes enough context to point them in the direction of your correct virtual identity.

Let’s suppose, meanwhile, that a new age of initialism is dawning. A man as famous as Nicholas D. Kristof may enjoy the luxury of renouncing his, but John Q. Public wants to protect his reputation. Has there been a better time to be a W.E.B. DuBois or a George H.W. Bush or an F. Murray Abraham? Research suggests that it’s always good to be a Roger O. Thornhill, with the European Journal of Social Psychology demonstrating that “the display of middle initials” increases “perceived social status” and “intellectual capacity.” By the same token, it’s nice, these days, to give a kid a compact middle name—short, two syllables at most—so that, using his full name, he may succinctly defend himself against homonymity. Also, it enables you to be brief when yelling at him after he attacks your friend with a Super Soaker.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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