IT'S A SITUATION most parents have encountered. A child (not yours) is causing havoc, upsetting their peers, shouting, screaming and generally behaving badly while the parent stands by and watches. Do you rush in regardless? Or stand back and hope it fizzles out? Or do you react in a way you think the watchful parent would approve? The problem is that parenting is subjective and depends on the personalities of the parent and the child. What works for one may not work for another. So, in any given situation where parents are having to demonstrate their skills in front of each other you'll rarely find them using an identical approach. There's the disciplinarian, who rules with a rod, or a smack or some time-out, at least. There's the reasoner, who talks until they're blue in the face. There's the guilty parent who works all week and doesn't want to confront the kids at the weekend. Then there's the expert, who seems to get it spot on every time and makes the rest of us feel inadequate. And the list goes on. How can you be sure to tread the right line? Julie Atkinson is the Asian region representative and trainer for the Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia. She's been teaching parent effectiveness in Hong Kong for 16 years, and says she comes across this problem all the time. 'It's one of the most common problems I've been asked to address over the years,' she says. 'People feel the pressure to parent in a way that's approved by people around them. In a situation where children are fighting, often parents do nothing - not because they're lazy, but because they don't know what to do.' Atkinson is in favour of the non-punitive approach. 'Mediation is the way to go' she says. 'It has to be non-judgmental though, with no solution offered, no lecturing. You should just offer an assessment as an impartial third party.' She suggests saying something like: 'You must both be really mad with each other.' Often this amount of mediation is enough, and avoids any conflict between defensive parents. But when all else fails, Atkinson says you can try to approach the parent - but be warned that it may result in the parent becoming defensive. 'If it's a repeated problem, you could say, 'I feel really concerned. Tom is finding it difficult to express his feelings in a non-physical way. I'm worried someone is going to be hurt'.' Julie Bell, a mother of two (aged three and one) says she recently had to deal with a situation where a playmate was repeatedly hurting her child and making him cry, while the mother did nothing. 'The mother didn't show any signs of embarrassment,' she says. 'I didn't know what to do. If it had been my child, I would have left and told him that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. 'Sometimes in situations like this I try to set an example, and hope the other parent will copy. Unfortunately, my son didn't retaliate so I couldn't discipline him to show her what needed to be done. What I did was decide not to go back. With hindsight, I should have left earlier.' Atkinson has counselled many parents about such a scenario. 'Bullying is a common problem,' she says. 'I once had parents on my course whose little girls were best friends, but one was said to be bullying the other. 'She was saying things like, 'You're no good at that'. It was getting to the point where it was affecting the friendship between the parents. It came to a head one evening in our group. 'We drew bodies to illustrate both children. When we wrote within the body forms all the emotions that both the children were feeling, they mirrored each other. They both felt sad, upset, humiliated and consequently frustrated. 'This exercise raised the empathy level of both of the mothers, so they could understand why this was happening. I suggested they take the method to the children to help them to sort it out. It defused the situation completely.' It's not only in conflict situations that parents can feel that their skills are under scrutiny. Bell remembers when a friend got agitated because she'd let her son play some distance away, implying Bell had put the child in danger. 'She wanted to impose her way of parenting on me and made me feel like a bad parent,' she says. 'She made me feel as though I wasn't caring enough, when actually all I was trying to do was to encourage him to be more independent. I guess it just plays on your insecurities. You're constantly judging yourself as a parent. You have to take people's comments on board, but I find I have to be clear in my mind about how I want to be and take advice as just that, not as criticism.' Atkinson says that the pressure to parent in a certain way is keenly felt within Chinese families, 'particularly if the parents are doing punitive parenting, which isn't understood and is criticised by the larger family'. This is often exacerbated if the grandparents live with the families. Julie Yan Yuming, the mother of two children (aged six and five), agrees. 'I believe Chinese families feel pressure from grandparents,' she says. 'They tend to be looser in terms of discipline. In our case, we find that upfront communication works. 'We've both told our parents how we want to raise our children. For example, we ask them not to do too much for the children because we want them to learn to help themselves. We make it clear how we intend to go about it, and we hope they'll co-operate. 'You hope they'll see the positive effect of the way we do things. You've got to be pretty persistent though, because it takes some time for grandparents to realise that their babies actually know how to look after their own babies!'