How to Discipline Other People's Kids

Getting your own children to stop teasing, talking back, and leaving their toys all over the floor can be tough enough. But what if their friends, cousins, or even complete strangers misbehave while you're on the scene? Here's how to handle a variety of sticky situations.

How To Discipline Other People's Kids

You're at the playground with your toddler, and unsupervised children are sending a puppy down a steep slide. If an animal could get hurt, stepping in is a no-brainer. Yelling at the kids, though, probably won't make an impact. "Instead, say, 'You know what? I'm afraid this dog is going to get hurt. I know you don't want that, so let's take him off the slide,' " suggests family therapist Larry Koenig, Ph.D., author of Smart Discipline. "Then stay there until they do. Kids hate when adults are in their space." If you live in a neighborhood where speaking up might incite the kids and put you and your child in danger, skip the chat and contact the park security or police.

In your weekly playgroup, one of the moms doesn't see her daughter yank a toy from your child's hands.Because you deal with these kids on a regular basis, it's important to be sure all the parents are on the same page concerning discipline. But it's a toss-up whether to step in here. "I want my children to learn how to handle other kids' aggressive behavior, so I wouldn't intervene unless someone could get physically hurt," Dr. Koenig says. Later, at bedtime, you could talk to your daughter about the day; mention the incident, then discuss different ways to handle future problems.

However, if this kind of situation has been happening a lot, you may want to teach the children about sharing immediately after the incident. "I'd go up to both girls, kneel down, and gently say, 'That's not the way we do it.' Show her how to take turns and tell her how to ask instead of grabbing," suggests Parents adviser Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them.

You're in line at the supermarket, and the mom in front of you smacks her whining son across the face. This is more serious than a slap on the hand or a swat on the bottom, but it's not necessarily abuse when you see it, says Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., author of Tough Times, Strong Children: Lessons From the Past for Your Child's Future. Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't condone physical punishment, many parents still use it. If you want to intervene, you must instantly assess whether this seems to be ongoing abuse (the child has visible bruises) or is an isolated event. Unfortunately, however, saying something to the mother may actually make the situation worse. "If the mom is publicly embarrassed, her anger may go up another notch when they get to their car," Dr. Borba says. "If I thought the child was really in jeopardy, I'd get the store manager or call the police. But if the mother was calming down, I'd be less judgmental," she says. Dr. Kindlon agrees: "I might say to the parent, 'It looks like you're having a rough time. Do you need a break? I'll watch your child for a few minutes.' Try to be helpful, and have some compassion."

When you're visiting your brother, his children try to interrupt your adult conversation. Your brother doesn't do anything about it."If the kids are just interrupting a discussion, it's not a biggie," Dr. Borba says -- even if you would ordinarily tell your own child to wait until you've finished talking. But if the conversation is an adults-only topic that's inappropriate for kids, tell your brother, "I don't think we should talk about this now; let's wait until the kids aren't around."

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