Saturday, March 18, 2006


Cyndi Zak of Milwaukee was waiting in line at the supermarket. In front of her was a couple who appeared to be the grandparents of the little girl with them, who looked to be about 6 or 7. As the grandfather bagged items and the grandmother dealt with the cashier, the little girl stood behind her grandmother and in front of Zak's cart.

Zak noticed her carefully eyeing the candy, gum and other goods that were displayed by the checkout counter.

"She chose a lip gloss, looked back at me, then proceeded to put it in her pocket," Zak writes. "She waited a moment, took a candy bar, then some gum, and something else I couldn't distinguish."

Each time she took an item, she looked back at Zak, who was glancing at her while loading her own items onto the conveyer belt.

"Each time I gave her a stern glare and even shook my head," Zak reports, "hoping she would 'fess up and put the articles back."

She didn't.

"The store was busy, my items were being checked out and there was a line forming," writes Zak, who couldn't quickly decide how to handle the matter. "Should I quietly say something to the girl? Do I approach the adults? Do I tell the clerk or manager?"

Before she could decide what to do, the grandparents decided it for her.

"They all scurried out of the store," Zak writes. "Now it bothers me that I did nothing, as if I was an accomplice to it all."

It's a common conundrum: What should we do when we see someone else's child do something wrong? Our instinctive urge is to intervene, but we also know that we wouldn't want other people interfering in our own childrearing. Either way we feel awkward and unsure.

If I'm at a family gathering, for example, and I see the young sons of a distant relative physically attacking one another while their parents are nowhere in sight, should I break up the scuffle? Or should I conclude that it's none of my business how another person's kids behave?

For me, this isn't a tough call: I break up the fight.

Zak's case also should have been a simple call. Since the grandparents were right in front of her, she should have alerted them to their granddaughter's sticky-fingered ways.

But there's a difference between simple and easy. Most people want to do right when faced with situations such as the one in which Zak found herself, but often we get a nagging sense that others don't want us butting into their business, particularly when it comes to how they raise, control or reprimand their children.

In the case of the fighting brothers, their parents might argue that their approach is to let the brothers work out their differences by themselves. I'd counter that there's a line between working things out and physically hurting one another, but I'll concede that some people would think I was wrong.

But with the little girl with the big pockets, there's no question that her behavior was inappropriate. It was both bad and illegal, and also affected Zak personally, if only indirectly: Such pilferage drives up merchants' costs, which undoubtedly are passed on to Zak and other shoppers in the form of higher prices.

Her attempt to make meaningful eye contact with the little girl was a good first step. When it didn't work, however, the right thing would have been to tell the grandmother that the little girl had pocketed some items. It might not have been an easy thing to do, but often the simplest and best responses aren't.


yawningdog said...

Personally, I would have looked right at the girl and said to her and only to her, "If you aren't going to pay for those, put them back." I'd give her the first shot at putting the things back, and then I would say something to the grandparents, loud enough for them and their granddaughter to hear.

I don't have a problem correcting the behavior of other people's kids. And I expect other mothers to correct mine.

As an example, I came back to the play area of our McDonalds to discover that a group of teenagers had taken a tray up to the top of the play feature and were 'surfing' down the slide. I walked right up to them, told them to stop, that they didn't belong playing here, what they were doing was incredibly dangerous to small children, and that if they did not all leave right now, I would skip talking to the manger and call the police.

The kids left and a number of parents thanked me. I did finally look at one of them and said, "Why didn't you do anything about them?"

Bad behavior is bad behavior. It is every Mom's job to point it out and stop it. Tell me I shouldn't be correcting your kids, I will agree. You should be correcting your kid.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a small town, so if I ever did anything wrong, my mother knew about before I got home. Today it is very different! When I have corrected a child or brought his/her disruptive behavior to the mother's attention in my place of business, some have been thankful, but many have told me I had no right correcting her/his child. Even so, as it is my business, I keep a close watch on children and will take steps to make certain that little or big hands do not "lift" anything. Because there is always the possibility that a parent's (or grandparent's) reaction to a stranger alerting him/her of the child's sticky fingers could be explosive, it would probably have been safer for Zak to have mentioned to the girl that she needed to give her purchases to the grandmother so that both the child and the grandmother would have been aware of the situation. That also would have alerted the clerk to what was happening.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is often knowing what to say and how to say it. As a whistleblower, I've felt threatened by what may happen if I say something. Phrasing a response as a question, being factual and non-judgemental is a neutral approach that can get good results. For example, not drawing conclusions or labeling what you saw, by saying she's shoplifting or stealing.

This doesn't always work, but being direct with some people can make things ugly.

Children at this age may only have a vague idea of what money is and how our economic system works. Nevertheless, they need to learn. A curious 1-year old picking something up is clearly different from a 7 year-old.

It appears to me that this was not the first time the girl had shoplifted. She needs help beyond this instance and the first step is helping her caretakers to be aware of the problem.

I would have said to the grandparents, "Did you know your granddaughter just now put several items from that shelf into her pockets?" (The facts.) This puts the ball into their court. If said loud enough for the clerk to obviously hear it they'll do the right thing in the store and return the items.

If they are conscientious, the grandparents will have a talk with the parents and child to be alert of and prevent future incidents.