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Should You Discipline Someone Else’s Child?

by on Apr.18, 2011, under Discipline, Parent modeling, Parenting, Peers, Safety

It’s hard enough to raise your own child—teaching him the rules of the road, guiding him as he learns how to “play nicely”—but what happens when a child who is not yours is in need of some pointed guidance (a swift kick in the pants, perhaps!)?

You’re having a playdate, and the guest grabs a toy (your child’s favorite Thomas car) out of your child’s hands.  The grabber’s mom observes without reaction.

You’re at the park, and a girl you don’t know throws sand at your child. The sand thrower’s mom is engrossed in a phone conversation.

You’re walking toward the school parking lot, and out of nowhere a classmate gives your child a good push. The pusher’s mom says, “Oh, boys will be boys,” and keeps walking.

Knowing when and if to discipline other people’s children is tricky business. When you are the parent in charge and no other adult is supervising, the answer is easy: Step in and deal with it. But when the other child’s parent is on the scene, it gets complicated.

Most parents will agree that it is usually crossing the line to correct or discipline someone else’s child. After all, when were you appointed the behavior police?  And even though the word discipline derives from the Latin root word which means teach, it is not your job to reprimand or to teach other people’s children.  While I do believe that raising a child “takes a village,” unless it is commonly practiced and understood that all the tribal elders participate in the child rearing (sometimes seen in close, extended families), it is unlikely that your instruction will  be welcomed by the other parent.

Each family has different values, different ideas about parenting, and a different tolerance for certain child behaviors. Not only might your and another’s parenting styles be light years apart, but your uninvited intervention will likely sting; it may offend, embarrass, or pass on your negative judgment…even if you are right. Look out for trouble then, as it’s no longer a problem just between the kids.

Knowing whether to intervene with someone else’s child has everything to do with two things:  1) safety (everyone’s) and 2) your child.  Safety needs no explanation; danger requires immediate action. But your child…he is your priority. He is the one whose teacher you are. He will learn from observing everything everyone else does, what other children are permitted to do…or not. This is what I call “ambient learning.”  While the other parent might shine-on her child’s misbehavior with “It’s just what kids do,” it is your responsibility to teach your child, directly and indirectly.  That just might mean stopping or redirecting another child’s undesirable behavior. If your child has been told not to throw sand, he needs to hear you tell the other child the same. It’s about your child.

Consider the following in deciding to deal with the misbehavior of a child who is not yours:

  • If you are the adult in charge, be in charge, kindly but firmly. Your child is watching.
  • Your house, your rules.  Everyone needs to abide by them. If you need to correct the child-guest, you can explain to the guest mother, “I am helping [my daughter] Amanda to understand that our house rules are for everyone. I hope you understand.”
  • Delivery is everything. Speaking up kindly is imperative, especially if the guest’s mom is present “So much noise hurts my ears.  [To the guest] Please help me by using your inside voice.” And then to the guest mom, “I am working on this very issue with Amanda. It helps when she knows it goes for everyone.”
  • Be gently encouraging. When the other parent is non-reactive to her child’s misbehavior, try saying, “It looks like Jason needs a little help, but I don’t want to overstep my bounds.”
  • Keep your own anger (and your bossiness) in check. It will leak and cause problems beyond a child’s misbehavior.

And of course, keep that ol’ Golden Rule in mind: Do unto others…It still works!

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23 Comments for this entry

  • leslie

    And then there’s the delicate situation that some of us without young children have to deal with, when the child in the airplane seat behind us is kicking the seat and the parent isn’t telling him not to! Golden Rule very helpful guideline here!

    Thanks, BB!

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    Such a good point, Leslie. This is a perfect example of when you need to step in kindly, telling the parent in charge that her child’s seat kicking is really bothering you and that maybe she could help you out by explaining that to her child. It wouldn’t hurt to empathize a bit by saying,”It must be so hard for your little guy to sit still for so long. I do appreciate your help.” Honey always works better than vinegar, but saying nothing is not the answer!

  • Griselda

    This was a great article to read since we recently went through something like this. We had two situations where we were not on a play date, but ran into our neighbors and their kids. Their little boy being 6 months older than my son, would come up and hit him. Once chased and poked him on the head. They didn’t do much to discipline. The second time, their son came at my son with a piece of bark, scratched his nose on the way to his eye. I yelled no and grabbed his hand. Saved the eye but not his nose. The mom grabbed her son, kept telling him to say I’m sorry, to which he argued with her.

    My husband and I talked about needing to sit down with those parents, because we share space in the community. We told them we would like to discuss the instances surrounding our children and at the time for them it was a boys will be boys. They couldn’t talk then because they had family in town.

    The talk to this day has not happened. My husband and I have said we will be disciplining the other little boy if something is to happen again. They have quit using the common space in our community.

    It is a hard boundary to step in, but when it is the safety of your child, I think you need to step up when another parent won’t.

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    It is really important that your child sees you stepping in. Not only does he need to know that the rules are for everyone but also what to do in such cases. Your case is tricky but imperative. Good luck in kindly, but firmly letting these parents know that you are worried about your child’s safety when their child is around.

  • Griselda

    Thank you Betsy. Do you have any recommendations on how to not let our child become someone who gets bullied? He is only 22 months and has a very tender heart. Other kids usually take things away and he just looks at us like, mom / dad? We try and say let’s share and let so and so have a turn. We direct him to another toy. We recently had a friend at church, him not knowing current situations, say that our son was such a great spirited kid. That we needed to keep an eye and not let him be bullied.

    At this time I’m thinking get him involved in self defense classes when he’s older. We are at a loss there for now.

  • Nell

    Wow, this couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

    Just yesterday my boys and I were at a playground when two children (whom we did not know) started mouthing off to my kids. I don’t know exactly what was being said, but I could tell by my boys’ body language that they were not happy and they retreated. When they came down the climbing ladder, one of the other boys (8) pushed my 4 year old. I didn’t see the other kids mother so I went up and sternly (but I didn’t think out of control) said “Did you just push my son?” He answered that he had and I told him that pushing, no matter what happened, is not the way to deal with problems. He said sorry and walked away.

    A minute later, his mother was on me like Big Old Momma Bear, accusing me of yelling at her son. I told her what happened and that I did not see her anywhere and more importantly that her son was a good boy in being honest, but she ended up yelling at me and then telling her son that my kids were “Brats”. I was fuming!

    I had to take a lot of deep breaths and talk myself out of over reacting. On the ride home though, the boys and I had a good conversation about appropriate behavior, but I wonder if I should have handled this differently?

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    Your story makes my blood boil, Nell. Sounds like you really tried to walk the walk. There’s no accounting for some people, and clearly this mama bear’s hackles were raised! The only thing I would have suggested would have been to have asked the offender when his mommy was and then to approach her…but only after I stepped in to protect my child. It was important that your son saw you tell the pusher that wasn’t okay. I would have encouraged my son to do the talking to the bruiser. Grrrrrrr.

  • Chris

    Amazing read, this is always a dilema in our family. Everyone always feels as if though its okay to discipline one anothers children because we’re the aunt/uncle and not just friends.
    How would you tell someone kindly not to discipline your child? I have a friend (who does not have children) who has on a few occasions tell my pre-teen daughter not to do something he felt was wrong or how she shouldn’t talk to me that way she has. And I have allowed it to happen without me saying anything to him because I don’t know what to say let alone how to say it, and I let me daughter take my fall. I later talk to her about it and explain to her that he was out of line for saying that to her and I apologize to her for allowing that to happen. What would be the best way to deal with that?

  • Betsy Brown Braun

    Well, as you probably have figured out, I’m a pretty straight shooter. Your first priority must be YOUR daughter. In this case, you let her stand in the line of fire. I would talk to you aunt and say something like, “I appreciate that you care so much about and are so comfortable with [daughter] that you step right in to comment on her behavior. While I know you mean well,I think it would be better for me to talk to my daughter about her behavior. I would rather her have a special, judgement-free relationship with you anyway. Please let me be the bad guy.” And that’s being way nicer than I would really like to be. I’d really like to say, “Butt out!”

  • Lucy

    Great advice. Thanks. I am guilty of having the undisciplined child. I was just at a playgroup and my two year old Girl was trying to take a glue stick from a little boy. I was nursing a 5 week old baby at the time and couldnt Lean over to intervene early enough before the boys mother grabbed my daughters wrist and told her off. I know my two year old needed to step back, but watching the lady physically handle my child made my blood boil and it really upset me. I’m not sure whether I should have said something to the lady, or whether I should be grateful that she stepped in to help discipline my child as My hands were full with a new born.

  • anais

    We had a recent situation where a friendship was lost over me “stepping over the boundary”. We invited a family whose 7 year old child had anger/rage issues. Over the curse of a couple of days, he had 3 angry outbursts with my son and as a result, my son was terrified by him. Each time the mom would talk to the son but there would be no real consequences for his actions (beyond giving an apology). He wound up raging in the car (kicking my seat as I was driving) while my son was sitting next to him. I got out and took him out of the car and told him that I wouldnt allow that behavior in the car. Of course, the mother was furious. So, yes, disciplining someone else’s kid – even a best friend – can be detrimental to the relationship and is very sticky business.

  • Betsy BB

    Yes, it is sticky and tricky business. Only you can decide where you priorities are, however. In your case, it sounds like you had no choice. You certainly wouldn’t want your child to see your friend’s son behaving that way with no consequence, right? As you said, it’s tricky business.

  • Kim

    How do I kindly tell my neighbor I will discipline my child? Her sons are 6 and 9 and live next door. Due to our close proximity the children play together very often. We both discipline our OWN children however I have noticed on two different occasions she has taken it upon herself to say something directly to my child. The mother and I are friends and I want to handle this tricky situation gently. I have never taken it upon myself to discipline her children. I often find myself saying I don’t find a particular situation a “good idea” which usually does the trick. So for my neighbor to raise her voice to my child came as a shock., especially since her 9 year old was involved and was left out of the discipline equation.

  • Betsy BB

    While I do not generally answer email questions, in this case, I really feel your pain. You don’t say where the children were (at whose house) and if both adults were present. That makes a difference. So, my suggestion, if you value your friendship with the mom and you want your child to continue to have a relationship with hers, consider having a heart felt chat over coffee. Respectfully suggest that since in the past you both have done a good job of each parenting her own children, you would appreciate it if she would share with you what she would like your children to know. You should probably sprinkle the conversation with assurances of how much her and her kids’ friendships mean to you and yours. Good luck.

  • shelley

    We struggle with this at family gatherings. My inlaws are very relaxed with discipline. And we are quite the opposite. They seem to think it’s okay to let their kids hit , push and shove our children (that are smaller than ours) as well as swear and be sassy to adults around. They are fairly non -existant parents. So, when my child runs up crying clearly stating their child hit her….and then their child admits to it and no discipline occurs- how do I handle this? I often explain to my child that hitting is not acceptable, and we discuss how we should react when someone hits us(they are to say “No, please don’t!” quite sternly and walk away and tell an adult. How do I deal with this as I don’t like my children learning swears, disrespect and violence?

  • Betsy BB

    I am not clear on who you mean by your “in laws.” Are you talking about your husband’s parents? It seems that it might be a brother or sister who has children. Yes? Yours is a difficult situation, for sure. I can promise you that “disciplining” your in law’s child will not go over well. I do feel your pain. My suggestion is to deal with your own child, right in front of the aggressor. Support him and let him know that he is correct, “You are so right. Hitting is not okay for anyone” in a strong voice. Then suggest to your child that he find something else to do. “If cousin Steven can’t play nicely, why don’t you find someone [something] else to play with. No one likes to play with kids who hit.” Your in laws will get the message!

  • ray rr

    as for me (and my wife) we stay every other weekends at my parent’s house. usually my mother watches my 4yr old son as well. one night my son was having tantrums & wanted to roam around my mother’s house late in the evening. he’s been crying and crying, however my wife just lets him cry till he gets tired. unfortunately, my parent’s sleeps downstairs and can hear every noise – esp. child crying! this prompted my mother to come upstairs to our room. (long story short) my wife didn’t like the fact that my mother had to “intervene” and caused my wife to get very upset. dear betsy, what would be the best way to handle this situation. and, do you think my son will be confused to which or whom to listen to? or is this more of a mother/daughter-in-law issue?

  • Betsy

    I am sorry that I don’t typically answer such involved questions, Ray. That said, in your case, this is clearly an issue between your wife and HER mother. You are correct!

  • Sally

    Dear Betsy.
    I am in a predicament. A friend of ours watches my son from time to time. He has 3 children of his own, with the youngest being the same age as my son.
    Yesterday was the first time I have witnessed this person physically handle my son, in front of me for something that I believe wasn’t a problem. My son knocked a sippy cup off the table and either didn’t hear or ignored this person’s request to pick it up. He jumped in, and first squeezed his arm, then grabbed him by the neck and physically pushed him down and forced him to pick up the cup. My son is 2 and a half.
    I told this person that I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of discipline and he said that he didn’t want him to move away from the cup and that he wasn’t going to do it again, if I am not comfortable with that.
    I would leave it at that, but this was not the first time I felt this person overstepped his boundaries. He slapped my son’s hand, when he turned the tv off, he yelled at him, when my son grabbed the toy from his child, etc. I also witnessed him and his children behave in a way that I do not want my son picking up.
    I am on the verge of having a “talk” with this person about not treating my son this way, but my gut feeling is telling me to draw the boundary even further and not let him watch my child anymore. That family helps us a lot, and not having real family around us, they have become kind of like a family to us. The incident happened at my house. Thank you.

  • Betsy

    “Predicament” is right! Yours is a tricky situation because you are dependent upon your friend. However, not only is it my opinion that it is never okay to “spank” a child (and that includes arm squeezing), but your child care giver needs to embody your philosophy of parenting. Since this is a person who has overstepped his boundaries before, I suggest you sit down with him at a non-child moment and have a discussion about your different philosophies. Perhaps he doesn’t know your approach. That said, I am not hopeful that he is going to change his ways. Hard as it might be, it is pretty clear to me that it’s time to find a different child care solution NOW!

  • Lisa

    This discussion has been a great one for me to come across.

    This is an issue that comes up in public events all the time as well. Parents who bring children to parties, weddings, and such and then forget to watch over them.

    I hear horror stories all the time from wedding and hospitality industry professionals all the time. Where they find it awkward to step in. Subsequently, they don’t and then some disaster happens.

    I personally fall in the category of having a thick skin and exuding it.

    I believe in speaking in clear to understand language with children immediately, and try re-direction, I also expect manners, apologies etc.

    I believe in being diplomatic with other parents and not appear the least bit defensive about why I took action. And I let a look in my face or eyes let them know, serve as a warning that I am not interested in a power struggle over what just transpired.

    I will however share this site, if this okay a resource for my staff and colleagues as well.

  • Megan

    Thanks for your article about this issue. I just had to “break up” with the mother of a playdate friend of my son’s. Her son would exhibit hurtful, unacceptable behavior toward mine to the point that I often was stepping in to discipline him without thinking twice about it. She really never seemed to engage in any effective discipline other than making him say sorry after the fact. The problem is that I am now 8 months pregnant and stopped being able to run after and discipline her child and protect my child! And my son started to have nightmares about her son. I didn’t tell the whole truth–I said I thought our children were “incompatible” and had different playing styles. I wish I could have been more honest but my main concern is the safety of my child and I figure she can either take a subtle hint about this or not.

  • angrydadatbil

    Thank you for the article! It’s very helpful, but I have a rather unique situation that i need some help with .

    I have a 2 yr old boy and 7 yr old girl. My wife’s brother has a 4 yr old girl and 8 yr old boy. My 2 yr old used to bite a lot! It started at about 20 months. I dicsiplined him every single time and it would get more severe because i didnt see an end in sight. Finally, he’s 3 in a few months now and has cooled off. However, he bites sometimes, mainly my 4 yr old niece. She bullies him and he isn’t as strong as them to be able to overpower any of them. Then he resorts to bitting. Recently, my BIL(Brother in Law) told his 8 yr old son to discipline my 2 yr old if he hurts his sister,the 4 yr old. My son called her a “poo-poo head” and the 8 yr old spanked him hard enough for him to cry. I told the 8 yr to tell me if there is a problem and I’ll take care of it. My BIL tells his son that he’s proud of him just after i said that.

    My BIL is a big part of my life and i dont want to stop being friends, but I’m not sure if I could ever be friends with someone that is encouraging their child to discipline other children. What should i do? Do i have to cut them from our life?

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