It’s almost inevitable. Whether you’re babysitting a friend’s child, watching your tot swing at the park or hosting a playdate, at some point every parent will witnesses an event that will have them wanting to step in and correct the behavior of someone else’s child.
But should you step in or sit back and let kids, well … be kids?
Unruly behavior like jumping on your furniture, being mean to your family pet or bullying is difficult to ignore. And it’s especially tricky to watch your child be in an uncomfortable situation, so it’s natural to want to intervene with a “don’t throw sand” or “don’t take that away from him.”
But disciplining someone else’s child can lead to hurt feelings among adult friends or neighbors, confrontations and verbal showdowns if the “other mom” takes offense to your actions.
However, experts say it is possible to navigate this slippery slope.
When Stepping in Makes Sense
Kathy Slattengren, M.Ed., a parenting expert and president of the parenting coaching company Priceless Parenting in Kenmore, Wash., says if the other child’s parent is present, in just about every instance that parent should be the one responding to their child’s behavior.
“However, if a child is about to throw a rock at another child, it’s fine to interrupt the action by gently grabbing the child’s hand and saying, ‘Rocks need to be left on the ground,’” says Slattengren.
If a child hits your child, Slattengren says it’s also OK to intervene. “You might comfort your child and say something like ‘Ouch, that really hurt.’”
Experts agree that it’s wise to help other children see the result of their behavior and even help them make amends if they are so inclined. “However imposing additional consequences should be left to that child’s parents,” says Slattengren.
“Instead of disciplining someone else’s child, I advise parents I work with to remove their child from an immediately dangerous situation. Then advise the child’s parent or caregiver,” says Alan M. Davick, M.D., a behavioral and developmental pediatrician and author of Managing Misbehavior in Kids: The MIS/Kidding Process.
“When potentially physically harmful acts are occurring, parents should take whatever steps are required to ensure immediately the safety of all concerned, followed by an appeal to authority, such as a call to parents or guardians of the misbehaving child.”
Davick says removing your child from a dangerous situation like bullying, physical acts (throwing a rock, hitting, biting, etc.) followed with the involvement of an authority, like a parent, teacher, etc., is a natural form of discipline.
You define the standard of behavior you expect and what you won’t tolerate without having to actually be the one to administer the discipline,” says Davick.
When Positivity Might Pay Off
When there’s no threat of danger and instead you’re dealing with a bossy child who won’t share, one who refuses to follow your house rules, etc., it’s best to start with encouragement, says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic and Executive Director of Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
“Identify behaviors the child is doing well, even close approximations, and reinforce those with verbal praise, high fives, or thumbs up,” she says.
So instead of saying “we don’t jump on the sofa,” encourage a child to demonstrate positive behavior by saying, “You were sitting so nicely during lunch today.”
“To avoid the sticky situation of disciplining another child, start by giving the child a ‘good direction,’ that is a direction telling the child what to do over telling them what to stop or what not to do,” says Krawiec. “You must be specific and polite, but firm.”
For example, to a child that is not familiar with the rules at your home you may say, “Jimmy, please take your shoes off and leave them at the door now.”
Maintain close proximity to be the most effective.
“You can even try using gentle touch like a soft tap on the shoulder. And remember to make eye contact to strengthen the direction,” Krawiec adds.
If the child complies, follow up with a demonstration of appreciation such as, “Thank you for following directions,” or, “You are a great listener.”
Shine the light on what you want to grow, says Krawiec. “By focusing on teaching a child appropriate behavior and then encouraging it, you will ‘grow’ more good behavior. Drawing attention to bad behavior will just cause it to seem to increase.”
If a child that is not yours continues to misbehave, Krawiec admits it might be time to throw in the towel.
“Politely explain to your child and the other child’s parent or guardian that it doesn’t seem to be that the misbehaving child is ready for independent play,” she says. “You can try to structure activities with the other parent present until that child improves with listening and following directions.”
And be sure to commend your child on his or her positive behavior to ensure they don’t misbehave when you’re around, either.