Little Kids

Can you discipline other people's kids?

It's a thorny question. Psychologist and parenting author Sara Dimerman provides a few answers

By Sara Dimerman
Can you discipline other people's kids?

Your new neighbour and her three-year-old daughter are over for a visit. Things are going beautifully until your little guest grabs a toy from your daughter and runs off with it. You’re hoping her mom will step in but — surprise! — she does nothing. Do you let it go or swoop in to restore the toy to your daughter? As tempting as it may be to discipline the other child, there could be consequences — such as your neighbour asking you to mind your own business. At worst, the kids could witness two grown adults defending their young, and the result might be ugly.

Is there ever a time or place to discipline other people’s kids? And does it matter who those people are — strangers, friends or relatives?

The basic rule of thumb is: Don’t do it. Especially when it comes to friends and relatives, the fallout can poison relationships for a long time. But like all rules, this one has exceptions. Most parents agree it’s OK if the situation calls for immediate action — in the case of a physical fight, for example. It may also be OK if you’ve been given permission from the child’s parent or caregiver to step in. But be aware that each situation is unique and may call for a different approach. Let’s look at some examples to help you navigate this often rocky terrain.

Cooling a spat

You’re hosting a playdate for your five-year-old and his friend from kindergarten. The boys are playing with blocks when they start to argue about who has more. Suddenly, your young guest begins flinging blocks across the room, and then pushes your son to the ground. What should you do?

Let’s assume the other parent is not present. You might kneel at the boys’ level and say, “I see you’re angry because you don’t have an equal number of blocks, but throwing and pushing won’t help. What do you think you can do so it’s more fair?” Without reprimanding anyone, you’ve expressed your concerns and offered direction. Even at this young age, you may be surprised at the solutions kids come up with.

Soothing a hurt

Your seven-year-old is outside playing with her friend next door. They’re getting along fine until the six-year-old from across the street comes over and starts whispering with the neighbour. Soon the other two girls run off, giggling. Your daughter comes in crying. What should you do?

It would be normal to want to run across the street, admonish the girls for being mean to your daughter, and talk to them about empathy and respect. But take a deep breath and a few minutes to get beyond your anger so you can handle the situation more rationally.

If this is the first time it’s happened, focus on your own child by acknowledging her feelings. You could say, “You were playing with Leila and having such a great time. It must have really hurt that Sarah came and took her away from you.” Your daughter will likely nod as tears run down her cheeks; it’s amazing what five minutes of acknowledging feelings and cuddling can do to make things all right.

Once she’s more composed, you might ask her, “What could you do differently next time something like this happens?” It would be great if she came up with the idea of standing up for herself rather than running inside, for example, or being able to tell her friend how she felt.

If this friendship triangle becomes an ongoing problem for your daughter, it would be appropriate to approach the other girls’ parents to share your concern. Be cautious, though, or they might feel you’re telling them how to handle their kids, rather than asking for their support in resolving the issue.

Dealing with stealing

You’re hosting a birthday party for your 10-year-old. You see one of his friends take a $20 bill from the counter — you must have forgotten to put it back in your wallet. What do you do?

You could take your young guest aside and talk to him about what you saw, but he’d probably try to save face by lying about his actions — and you can’t very well insist on searching his pockets. Instead, you might choose to wait until the party is over, and then call his parents. Let them know you didn’t feel it was your place to say anything to their son at the party, but you felt they should know what happened. Try to imagine how you might feel if you were on the receiving end of the call and that will help you express your concerns in a supportive, non-adversarial way. Most parents will take this seriously and appreciate that you did not take the matter into your own hands. They’ll likely have their son return the money and apologize for taking it.

Stressing safety

You’re at the community pool with your six- and eight-year-old kids. They’re splashing away while you keep an eye on them. You notice that two older boys are getting rough as they chase each other close to your children, who aren’t such good swimmers. What do you do?

In this situation, safety is the priority. You could physically position yourself between the big kids and your children, or say, “Let’s move to another part of the pool where you’ll be safer.” Since it’s unlikely that you’ll spot the boys’ parents or caregivers quickly in a crowded pool, you may need to intervene if the rough play continues. In a case like this, you might say something like “Hey guys, can you move the game somewhere else? We have small kids here.”

In general, when it comes to friends and relatives with whom you spend a lot of family time, it’s good to share your beliefs about discipline do's and don’ts and, together, come up with an approach both sides can live with. And if you really trust and respect the way someone disciplines her own children, you may even give her permission to discipline your kids when you’re right there in the room.

On the other hand...

It’s inevitable that at some point you’ll witness your own child being disciplined by another adult. And watch out — your inner Mama Bear may wake up and roar! It’s as though someone is saying, “I’m stepping in because you’re not doing a very good job of dealing with this.” Take a breath, though. There are ways to handle this that don’t involve teeth and claws. Consider these scenarios:

Sandbox politics

Your toddler is playing in the sandbox of your neighbour’s backyard with her toddler, and you two moms are having a great chat. Then your child throws sand and it gets in his buddy’s eyes. He starts to cry and his mom runs over to console him. You head over too, but before you can say anything, your neighbour has told your child to “keep the sand in the box and play nicely.”

Ouch! Even though you might have said something similar, she didn’t give you a chance. Instead of bottling up your resentment, you could speak up and tell her you were just about to talk to your son about his behaviour. Let her know with a smile that you’re on the case next time something comes up — and that you’ll give her the same space with her child.

When grandma knows best

Your mother-in-law comes to visit at least twice a week. Although you appreciate her time, and love that the kids feel connected to her, you don’t appreciate her contradicting you on discipline: When you give them a time out, she takes their side and asks you to give them a second chance.

This is oh-so delicate, since you don’t want to offend her. Still, you do need to address it. Talk to your spouse about what you have in mind and then either together, or on your own, find a moment to discuss it with your mother-in-law. You might say, “When you step in and take the kids’ side, I feel as though my authority is being questioned. And I think it’s confusing for the kids. If you feel I’m not being fair with them, I’d prefer to talk about it privately with you. Can we try that?”

Sara Dimerman is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and is the author of Am I a Normal Parent? and Character Is the Key.

This article was originally published on Nov 08, 2010

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