Should You Discipline Other People's Kids?

What to do when a friend or neighbor's child in your care starts acting up.

scolding young boy
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When it comes to disciplining someone else's child you don't want to offend the kid's parents, but if his behavior is dangerous or harmful you can't simply ignore it either. "It's not intruding on another parent's turf when you're protecting your own child," says Michele Borba, EdD, a Parents advisor and author of No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them. Still, the right response depends on the circumstances. We'll tell you how to respond here.

Carpool Conundrum

You're in a carpool with other families in your neighborhood, and one boy has been misbehaving a lot lately, screaming and starting fights in the car.

What you're tempted to do: Give the boy a time-out and not tell his mom what happened for fear she'd disapprove of you disciplining her child.

What you should do: Issuing a time-out is good, but you have to tell the other mother what happened. She needs to know what's going on with her child, and you need to give your side of the story in case the boy has mentioned "that mean mommy who yelled at me." (Wouldn't you want to be clued in if your kid was wreaking havoc?)

Relate the facts, without passing judgment, and his mom should be okay. The two of you may need to come up with a plan in case the child's behavior continues. Perhaps she could reiterate what's expected of him when he's in someone else's car or home, and this team effort can help solve the problem.

You're the boss in your car and home, and it's up to you to keep things safe and civil for all the kids in your care. If you let one child get away with acting up, you're telling all the tots "Go wild! No big deal!"

Playground Bully

Your 3-year-old is drawing with sidewalk chalk when two 5-year-old boys ask to borrow some. You give them a few pieces, but they return asking for more. Your son says "No," but they pull the chalk away from him.

What you're tempted to do: "You want to say, 'Hey, stop that—don't you kids know better?'" says family therapist Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool. But if you lash out, Runkel cautions, you'll only scare the children and put their parents on the defensive.

What you should do: "Your first step is simply to make your presence known," says Borba. "Often, that's enough to stop aggressive behavior." If it isn't, address the boys calmly but sternly: "We don't grab things from other people. Somebody might get hurt." Let them know your son is happy to share his things, but they need to share too —and to stop grabbing. If their behavior continues, put the chalk away and head for another area of the park.

When Ellen Morris's 5-year-old son, William, was being pushed around by an older child at a playground near their Louisville, Kentucky, home, she felt she had to intervene. "I said, 'Fighting is not okay,' then asked the boy nicely to play in another area, which he did," says Morris.

Bad Playdate

Your 4-year-old daughter's friend bosses her around during dress-up, hogs all the toys, and then refuses to help clean up the mess she made.

What you're tempted to do: Put her in a time-out or send her home.

What you should do: Your house, your consequences. Right? Well, yes, but restrain yourself—maybe your little guest is just having a bad day. Reiterate the rules ("In our house we take turns, and everyone cleans up her own mess"), then offer a reward ("When you're done cleaning up, we'll have cookies and lemonade"). If she still won't play nicely, you might try having the kids play separately for a while and see whether that helps.

Steer clear of time-outs unless you've gotten the mom's permission to give one. Even then, save it for more egregious behavior, such as when a child is throwing toys or being defiant. If necessary, ask if she'd like you to call her mother to see whether she has any suggestions (the mere threat might change her tune). Be up-front about the problems at pickup: "We were having a little trouble with getting along and sharing today."

In most cases, a visiting child will want to win your approval. Christy Majors, of Waynesboro, Virginia, hosts playdates all the time for her kids, Tess, 6, and Max, 3. "When someone misbehaves, I talk to them at eye level and treat them with respect," she adds. "Kids know when they're being dealt with fairly, and they'll usually cooperate in return."


Your son comes home from class with a bite mark on his arm from another child.

What you're tempted to do: Confront the child's parents, and shoot off an angry e-mail to the teacher.

What you should do: Preschools exist in part to help children learn which social behaviors are acceptable and which aren't. Hitting and biting are common at this age. Although that doesn't make them acceptable, your son's teacher is the right person to handle the problem. Feel free to set up a conference where you can express your concern: "Would you please keep an eye out when our son plays with Max, so this doesn't happen again?" Also, make sure the teacher has spoken to the boy's parents. There's no reason for you to contact them directly, though, unless you're friendly with them and feel that not mentioning the incident would be awkward.

Bad Table Manners

While having dinner with your family, your daughter's 5-year-old friend eats her mac 'n' cheese with her fingers.

What you're tempted to do: Tell her to use a fork—she's old enough to know better.

What you should do: Hold your tongue. "Give kids a little leeway with certain kinds of manners," says Daniel Buccino, a clinical social worker at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. The child's bad table habits might be the result of her cultural background, or she could have a manual dexterity problem. By overlooking the poor manners, you're teaching your children to be gracious hosts. But if the sloppy dining leads to truly bad behavior, like throwing food or belching intentionally, it's fine to (gently) correct the child. Later, praise your own kids for using their utensils and eating properly, so they're not confused by the apparent double standard.

Dirty Words

Your 8-year-old nephew starts teaching your kindergartner dirty words, and your brother doesn't notice (or pretends not to).

What you're tempted to do: Cover your child's ears, and scold your potty-mouthed nephew.

What you should do: Calmly ask the boy to clean up his act. Say, "You're older, and it's not appropriate to use these words in front of Matthew." This will make the child and his dad aware of the problem without offending anyone. When they leave, talk to your child about the naughty words: "We don't use that language in our family. Those words can upset people, and they're inappropriate."

Passive Parent

Your friend's daughter constantly interrupts your conversation, but your friend ignores this impolite behavior.

What you're tempted to do: Tell the child she's being rude, then suggest your friend teach her some manners.

What you should do: Address your friend, not her kid. "Ask, 'Do you need to go help Lauren? Because I'd be happy to continue this conversation in a few minutes," says Peggy Post, coauthor of Emily Post's The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children. This is a subtle but clear way to send the message that you're frustrated by the behavior and feel she should correct her child.

When You Lose Your Cool

The playdate is out of control. Kids are spilling drinks, throwing toys, and fighting. Finally, when one child leads your son up the outside of the stair railing, you yell at them to get down, now. And when they don't, you send them to separate rooms.

An overreaction? Probably. But what's your damage-control strategy? "My advice is the same as it is for wayward politicians," says social worker Daniel Buccino. "Disclose all, and do it early."

Call the child's parent right away and give your side of the story: "Kyle and Joey were climbing the stairs on the outside, and I was scared they might fall and get hurt. I spoke sharply to them and gave them time-outs. I realize I lost my cool, and I just wanted you to know." Fess up, and chances are you'll get sympathy on the other end of the line. Keep quiet, and you risk having Kyle complain about Joey's mean ol' mom when he gets home.

6 Discipline Strategies for Other Kids

Follow these guidelines when you're in charge of someone else's kid.

  • Tread lightly. Don't ever spank or yell, even if the child does something dangerous or destructive. Your goal is to correct his behavior, not to punish him.
  • Plan ahead. Discuss the rules with the child's parent (for example, how much TV she can watch and what she can eat for a snack) and agree on consequences in advance.
  • Explain your expectations. A child isn't likely to obey boundaries unless you set them. Take a few minutes to go over the house rules: "No running or playing ball indoors, everyone must share, and toys go away when you're done playing with them."
  • Let the little things go. If a child knocks down a block tower or doesn't say thank you for the homemade cookies and lemonade you made, don't correct him. Remember: Every parent has a different set of expectations about acceptable behavior.
  • Don't embarrass her. Never discipline a child in front of her friends. Address her as part of a group: "I can see everyone's tired of playing this game. Let's all take a break and sit down for a snack."
  • Accentuate the positive. When you have to remind another child to share, clean up, or stop throwing things, make a point of praising your child (in private) for being good.
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