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.

By Diane Benson Harrington
October 05, 2005

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."

Discipline Solutions

At your house, your son and his friend are tossing a ball in the living room after you've repeatedly asked them to stop."Sometimes we're afraid that if we say something that sounds too strict, the friend won't want to come over again and our child will be upset. But doing nothing sends a mixed message to your child -- he knows he's not allowed to do something, but a friend can get away with it," Dr. Borba says. Tell both boys they're not allowed to throw balls in the house, and offer an alternative: rolling the ball instead, going outside, or playing with another toy.

If it's an isolated event, it's not necessary to go any further. But if the same incident happened last week, consider sending the friend home or calling his parents. You could gently explain, "This happened today and last week too. Since we're all worried about things breaking in our homes, I just wanted you to know what the kids were up to." Says Pat Curry, of Watkinsville, Georgia, "I call that my 'this is a problem we're all having' approach. Recently, our kids were sitting with other kids in the back row at church and acting up. I could see what the other parents couldn't. Afterward, I told the other parents, 'My kids were in the thick of this, but it was the whole crew.' And we all handled it individually."

Your sister's family is visiting. She's not in the room with her two kids, 7 and 10, when they start screaming at each other."Kids argue all the time, and you don't always want to step in," Dr. Borba says. "But if the volume and emotions are escalating, you can tell them nicely to lower their voices and ask whether they need help solving their problem. If it were two 3-year-olds, you might have to talk it through with them, but since these kids are older, the warning alone may do it."

You're at a family get-together when your 9-year-old nephew starts teaching your 7-year-old son dirty words for reproductive organs. Your sister-in-law hears this, but she does nothing."One of my daughter's 3-year-old friends curses like a sailor, and her mom thinks it's the cutest thing," Dr. Koenig says. "Your sister-in-law may be the same way. Relatives can get testy when you criticize their kids, so be careful how you approach this." Calmly tell your nephew, "Sorry, but that's not a word we use in our house." That way, both boys get the message.

In a fast-food restaurant's play area, a few moms you don't know aren't paying attention to their wild kids, who are bullying the smaller children in the tube slides and knocking them down."You can't ignore this, because kids could get hurt," Dr. Borba says. First, make sure your child is really old enough. Most of these structures aren't intended for very young children -- check the sign that lists the minimum height or age. If your son is following the rules but is the only small one there, you might pull him off until the big kids leave. If he's not the only little one, you can politely ask the older children to be gentler. "If the kids don't calm down and their parents still do nothing, I'd go talk to the manager," Dr. Borba says. "The restaurant is liable if someone gets injured."

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the September 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

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