Disciplining Other People’s Children

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An interview with Michele Borba, Ed.D.

At the park, my three year old is spinning around a pole. A little boy nearby, swings his arm back and forth, eyeing my son as he comes closer and closer. He purposely makes contact, whacking my son on the back. I look around and there’s no caretaker on hand.  I step in and sternly say, “I saw you hit him, and that’s not okay. You may not hit other people.”

Disciplining other people’s children can be awkward.

With the holidays and its gatherings upon us, figuring out the best approach to correcting children not-our-own seems a good idea. What’s the best way? And, under what circumstances? Michele Borba, renowned child development expert, shares her tips on how to kindly set other people’s kids straight. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

For holiday gatherings, how can we set-up environments so mingling families have the best shot at minimizing conflict? 

Anticipate and plan! Kids misbehave when they’re hungry, tired, bored or want attention. You can set up snacks, figure out little games to keep the them occupied. Make sure there aren’t too many kids in close quarters, and mobilize your relatives ahead to plan. Ask each adult to bring a healthy snack, game or fun new video that can keep everyone happy.

What if you observe a child misbehaving, and their parent is observing the same behavior, but doing nothing about it? How should you react?

Don’t allow it to continue. You could say, “In our house we…” and review the rule. You could also do the two-rule, that is, describe your house rules, and also add “You two look like you need a break from one another.”

How should parents react if their child is disciplined in front of them by another parent, and they’re uncomfortable with it?

Say your concerns in a calm way to the other parent, then say “Excuse me, but I’d like to talk to my child right now.”

What about play dates? Should parents set up rules. If so, what kind?

Yes, parents can and should set-up house rules. It makes it clear and safe for all players.

Here’s how:

Get on board with the other parent

Anytime you’re responsible for the care of another child, always introduce yourself to the other kid’s parent. Take a few minutes to have a cup of coffee (“Can you come in for just a minute?”) or at least have that key phone conversation. You can exchange emergency information, and also bring up discipline. “Are there any special rules you’d like your child to follow?” “What would you like me to do if they act-up when they’re with me?” A brief chat will clue you into the parent’s discipline views and also make things easier just in case there is a problem.

Review your ground rules

  • Be very clear with your child before the friend arrives, about what the house rules are.
  • Don’t change your house rules to accommodate an obnoxious play date guest. It sends a huge mixed message to your child.
  • Do remind kids of your rules, such as: “We don’t run in the house. We stay in our yard. Doors that are closed are off-limits. When in doubt, ask please. Have fun!”

A  few don’ts:

  • Don’t spank another child. Ever.
  • Don’t be judgmental: “You’re so naughty.”
  • Don’t push or even touch the child except in the case of safety!
  • Don’t discipline if the other parent is present. However, you can review the rules: “We don’t run in the house.” “I don’t allow my kids to go into my bedroom. Could you remind your child please?” You may take the kid by the hand and “return” him to the parent.
  • Don’t use time-outs or take away the other kid’s personal possessions.

Make safety your core policy:

Step in for any safety issue! You are responsible.

  • Aggression or cruelty are not allowed: hitting, biting, fighting, slapping, or exclusion.
  • Risky behaviors like running with a sharp object, jumping off things that are too high are not allowed.
  • No child is allowed to leave your property.

Use “cool” discipline and watch your terms

You do not have to tolerate any guests acting inappropriately. Just remember the child may later share with his parent how you discipline (and those stories can be embellished).

  • For instance, best to not use “time-out” but you can still say, “Looks like you both need time to cool down. Why not sit here a bit until you’re ready to play again?”
  • You can separate two kids. And it’s always good to have a just-in-case quiet game or kid DVD to pop in just in case things get heated.

Call the parent for severe infractions

If you’ve tried the cooler discipline approaches and the guest continues to misbehave, you could:

  • Issue a warning that if he continues to not follow your rules you will call his parent (and then follow through).
  • Separate the kids. Put your child in another room for the remainder of the play date, but keep the guest in a central spot you can still supervise.
  • Take the child home. Call the parent and explain the two kids seem to need a break from each other, then ask if it would be acceptable to drive the guest home. Never do so without that permission.
  • Decide if the parent needs to be told. Do realize the child may give his own interpretation, so better it come from you. Use a tactful approach: “This is a little problem we had today. I’m sure you would want to know so I wanted to tell you what the kids were up to.”

If the guest’s behavior continues to be a problem at your home, despite your best efforts, it may be time to tell the child he may not come over until his behavior improves. Just be prepared to calmly tell his parents the same. And keep in mind, every child (even yours) has a bad day now and then and deserves a second chance.

Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, parenting expert and child and adolescent expert. She has written 23 books including, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline