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Disciplining Other People’s Children

Oct19

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Hi Amy,

I’m in a sticky situation and wanted to get your opinion on it since you give such good advice.  I have a good friend who has a three-year-old.  This little girl is beautiful and engaging but she has no discipline whatsoever.  She constantly disobeys her parents and other adults and there are never any consequences for her.  We recently hosted a large cook at our house.  My friend came with her husband and daughter.  During the course of the afternoon and evening the daughter acted terribly, disobeying adults, being mean to other kids, whining, and arguing with her parents.  Some of the adults were uncomfortable because they would ask the little girl not to do something (like jump on the couch) and she would laugh and do it anyway.  When it was brought to my friend’s attention, she threatened to take the little girl home, but otherwise did nothing. 

Later in the evening, the little girl was arguing with her mom and I snapped at her in front of our guests.  I let the little girl know that she was at my house and she had to obey my rules and that included listening to her parents.  Even though I talked to her like I talk to my own child, I still felt terrible.  I know it wasn’t really my place to discipline her.  I apologized to the mom and talked to the little girl.  However, after that happened several people, both those that know the family and those that had met them for the first time that day, came up to me and thanked me for saying something as they felt the child had been out of control all day.  The thing is, as I’m sure you can guess, that behavior was pretty normal for that child.  I have been distancing myself from this friend as I feel that she is not really interested in parenting her.

My question is, should I say anything else to my friend?  I apologized for snapping at her child and I meant it.  If I wanted to say something I should have done it differently.  But when so many people thanked me for disciplining her child I wondered if I should say something else. 

Thanks for your help!
K

Thing the First: I think you were absolutely within your rights and bounds to say something to the child at that moment. Your house, your rules. We all (and I include myself here) seem to have acquired a terrible fear of overstepping and “disciplining” children that are not our own has become this dreadful, obnoxious thing. When really, you didn’t “discipline” her. You explained the house rules to an unruly, obnoxious guest. If you’d decided that child needed a good whuppin’, then yeah. That would have been a problem. But as the host of many playdates with less-than-perfectly-behaved playmates (and as the mother of at least one unpredictably-behaved child who I swear DOES see limits and consequences to his actions but STILL sometimes acts like an amped-up defiant banshee), I can assure you that what you did wasn’t some Great Betrayal of the Parenting Code. Sounds more like you were filling a much-needed role of Village Elder, a role this child could probably benefit from, if her parents are as disinterested in curbing bad behavior as you say.

Thing the Second: No, you shouldn’t go back and revisit the subject with your friend further. It’s one thing to react to the bad behavior as it happens. It’s another to go back and tattle on that behavior like you were basically cataloging infractions as evidence in the court of I Think You’re A Bad Parent. If all those other people think more people should speak up, well…nothing was stopping them, right? I don’t think their praise should make you feel obligated to push the issue further. You did the right thing at the time, I think, so just forgive yourself for snapping but then let it go.

There’s so much that COULD be going on here…the little girl could have special needs they haven’t told you about (or even figured out themselves), they could be going through a rocky patch at home and are responding by indulging her too much. Or yeah, they could just be lazy, ineffectual parents with no idea how to discipline. It’s always hard to see other parents making “mistakes” and wanting to step in and help them, but even if your intentions are SO SO GOOD and EVERYBODY AGREES WITH YOU that the parents are making mistakes, well, that’s where I think the “it’s not my place” thing comes in. If your friend asks you for discipline advice or confides in you that she’s feeling overwhelmed and bullied by her daughter, then the door is wiiiiiide open for you to offer insight or book recommendations or whatever.

But if she continues to do nothing but shrug her shoulders when it’s pointed out that her child is jumping on the couch and being mean to other kids — and doesn’t show any signs of even caring that other adults ARE stepping in to reprimand her daughter — I’d put her on the list of friends to see sans kids and probably think long and hard about inviting them to your next barbecue. Your house, your rules, and those rules apply to everybody, three years old and up.

UPDATE: Since this situation sort of reminds me of the issue I posted about during my maternity leave re: a friend’s child who I’d caught being mean to Noah on several occasions. She wanted to come meet the new baby, so I invited her and her daughter (yep, it was a girl) over and PROMISED myself that I would call out any bad behavior I spotted as unacceptable. Well, the little girl arrived with small gifts for Noah and Ezra she’d bought with her own money. I saw some bossiness (and natural age-difference-related impatience) but nothing like what I’d witnessed before. She really was a sweet little thing, and Noah was very upset when it was time for her to go. I also learned that my friend and her husband had decided to temporarily separate last year but hadn’t told ANYONE, but have since reconciled and it was really tough on their daughter and OH MY GOD IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW.  While I still wish I had said something right when I saw the original mean-girl behavior (like today’s OP did), I am glad I didn’t go to her after the fact with a “AND THEN YOUR CHILD DID/SAID THIS!” come-to-Jesus talk. 

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

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Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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22 Responses to “Disciplining Other People’s Children”

  1. Hannah Oct 19 at 12:19 pm Reply Reply

    Ugh, I hate this situation. Amy’s advice sounds spot-on to me. My house, my rules – anything my own kids aren’t allowed to do, no one else’s kids invading my house are, either. And kids who are consistently that out of control don’t get visited by us anymore. I have worked long and hard to teach my children respect for others and proper behaviour… I don’t need someone else unraveling it all for me in one afternoon.

  2. Angela Oct 19 at 12:44 pm Reply Reply

    I can think of two times outside my house when I have disciplined others’ kiddos.  Once at the playground, where I really just politely told the kids that they could not hang over the edge and spit on kids.  The second time, I actually yelled.
    A group of three ~9-11 year old boys were in the shallow (0-2.5 foot) section of the pool, holding each other under and screaming in some sort of mock torture play: “tell us the truth, what do you know, etc.” They were also “waterboarding” each other in the fountains.  A lifeguard told them to stop and then walked away.  After 10 more minutes of watching them continue, in front of my toddler who doesn’t understand that holding someone under can actually kill them, I snapped, screamed at them to knock it off, and threatened to have them kicked out.  In retrospect, I should have just had the lifeguard kick them out…but  I kind of wish their parents had been there, I would have liked to have yelled at them too.
    My house, my rules…unless you are doing something really offensive or dangerous in public.  Then I gonna say something!

  3. Karen Oct 19 at 12:44 pm Reply Reply

    This mom sounds like she’s either clueless or overwhelmed. If she’s clueless, then distance and boundaries seem good. If you think she might be overwhelmed or otherwise in need of some support, then I’d look for any opening she gives to offer support if you feel the friendship is worth it. This little girl is clearly challenging and not all parents are perfectly capable of meeting that challenge on their own. And thanks for the update Amy!!!

  4. JenVegas Oct 19 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

    Ugh, other people’s children sometimes suck. As the mother of a precocious 10.5 month old, who walks better than a lot of 16 month olds we run into, we have problems all of the time on the playground with older kids who just barrel right into the poor little guy. Whose parents are watching? No one’s. Every once in a while I have to give a “hey, no pushing please!” to some kids and hope that no one gets playground rage about me talking to their kids.

  5. Zanbar Oct 19 at 6:18 pm Reply Reply

    I feel quite stongly that it IS ok to discipline other people’s children. There’s a dreadful preciousness bordering on judgementalism for out-of-order behaviour from other people’s children. I find it a bit irritating. I try to keep my own child well-behaved, but at rising three he does not always do me credit. Why shouldn’t someone say something if they feel he is behaving in an aggressive or anti-social manner? For a start it’s impossible to witness everything in interactions between toddlers, and I prefer to only react to crimes I actually see. Luckily most of my friends have the same philosophy, but if I thought I’d be judged for every crime of my child I’d be constantly on edge.
    I live in central London and there’s kids with fairly ropey parenting all over our estate and if no-one said anything who wasn’t their parent, we would live in a very unsafe world. (I ran into trouble with this philosophy recently asking my teenage niece not to use her smartphone at the dinner table. I told her I wouldn’t tolerate it in a friend so why in her? I’m not sure my sister-in-law was so happy).
    So I’m agreed with Amy. Good on you for saying something in your home – just no apologies next time. Her daughter can be a welcome guest but on your terms. I’m sure you’ll find she responds very well to boundaries, and it will mean a great deal to your friend that she is accepted and not judged. Have you thought that she probably didn’t follow through with the threat of going home because she just wanted to have a nice day with her friends (you)? The dynamic between parent and child is as complex as adult relationships, you simply don’t KNOW if she’s doing a bad job. There could be so much much more going on.

  6. Dayna Oct 20 at 1:46 pm Reply Reply

    I would love to know what people think about this situation. I was at a basketball game. Not that it really matters, but it was the season championship and my 12 year old was on the court – I was really interested in the game. Along with my husband, my three other children (aged 9, 9 and just turned 3) were in attendance. My little kids were occupied with books, dolls.. whatever, and sitting/playing on the bleachers. A group of 3-4 kids spent the first half of the game playing loudly in an adjacent corner of the (crowded) gym, chasing each other in front of our area on the benches, running between parents and corner and being really very disruptive to my viewing the game. After the halftime, they ramped up even more and I was admittedly agitated when I said to the children, “You are going to need to stop running right here in front of me. I am trying to watch the game.” Their two mothers then became VERY angry with me that I had dared speak to their children. I told them they’d had a pretty long ended opportunity to speak to them themselves and apparently weren’t up for the job – we were not at the playground. It was a bit of a scene and I’m really not the wicked witch of the west about kids playing around me… I was just very annoyed. Should I have asked the parents to speak to their kids? Or was what I did understandable/acceptable?

  7. Bridget Oct 20 at 3:26 pm Reply Reply

    I am a strong believer in disciplining each others kids – I encourage my friends to discipline my boys if they’re bad and I’m not there to see it, and I do lightly correct my friends’ kids if they do something they shouldn’t and my friends miss it. I think it’s important for us all to step in and help to take care of each other. I would absolutely correct ANY child if it’s a safety issue. I hope someone would say something to my child if he’s about to put himself or someone else in danger.
    @Danya, in that situation, I would probably have said something to the mothers first, but that’s just me.

  8. VG Oct 20 at 3:41 pm Reply Reply

    Dayna – you could’ve said something like “Hey! Are you going to control your kids b/c they’re distracting me from watching my kid play in the game!”
    But I’m crazy like that ;)

  9. Olivia Oct 20 at 3:53 pm Reply Reply

    I think some reprimanding of children is acceptable, particularly in your own home. However, out in public it’s important to assess whether the other child(ren) is doing something that’s really wrong and/or dangerous or just doing something I don’t like. 

    In Dayna’s situation I wouldn’t have said anything. The kids were being annoying, but running in a gymnasium isn’t really wrong. All the basketball games I’ve ever been to are noisy and filled with plenty of distractions like people getting up from their seats, loud yelling, cheerleaders, the band, etc.

  10. n2dbriarpatch Oct 20 at 7:10 pm Reply Reply

    We often go to large family gatherings where there are a lot of little girl.  I have always been more comfortable with kids than adults, so I often volunteer to watch all the kids while everyone else eats and socializes…and partly because we have a VERY active 2 year old who WILL get into everything without supervision.

    One little girl, only 3 years old, loves to boss the other kids, and adults, around.  One day she started yelling at me (when it was just me and about 6 kids) so I got right up close to her explained that if she EVER spoke to me like that again, she WOULD be in time out and I WOULD tell her parents that her behavior was unacceptable.  I then made her apologize and start saying “please” and “thank you” every time she wanted something.  I also gave her lots of compliments each time she did something well and made her say “thank you.”

    By the end of the day, the child was following me around, giving me hugs, asking me to play with her, etc..  Every time I see her now, she runs right up, and is as polite as can be.

    Kids like discipline. Even though your discipline may annoy their parents, the kids wlll respect you so much more for it.

  11. Erica Oct 20 at 9:59 pm Reply Reply

    As both a teacher and a parent, I struggle with this all the time, when to step in, when to let it go, oy. 

    A great resource for anyone dealing with any kids is the boo How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen And Listen So Your Kids Will Talk.  It can be a quick read given that the information is presented in several different formats, and it really transformed how I interacted with my students and now my children in very positive ways.  It’s often appropriate to say something, to explain your rules in your home, to reestablish safety limits, to stake your claim to common courtesy, but having a few kid friendly strategies in your tool kit is worth it to make the experience more positive and help kids maintain their dignity and build positive relationships with you and others.  I’ve met kids who genuinely wanted attention or to have fun, but most kids don’t actually want to be in trouble or make people dislike them.  They’re just young, often naive, slightly clueless humans.  It’s worth learning how to talk to them well.

  12. Mark Oct 20 at 10:25 pm Reply Reply

    I feel quite stongly that it IS ok to discipline other people’s children. There’s a dreadful preciousness bordering on judgementalism for out-of-order behaviour from other people’s children. I find it a bit irritating. I try to keep my own child well-behaved, but at rising three he does not always do me credit. Why shouldn’t someone say something if they feel he is behaving in an aggressive or anti-social manner? For a start it’s impossible to witness everything in interactions between toddlers, and I prefer to only react to crimes I actually see. Luckily most of my friends have the same philosophy, but if I thought I’d be judged for every crime of my child I’d be constantly on edge.
    I live in central London and there’s kids with fairly ropey parenting all over our estate and if no-one said anything who wasn’t their parent, we would live in a very unsafe world. (I ran into trouble with this philosophy recently asking my teenage niece not to use her smartphone at the dinner table. I told her I wouldn’t tolerate it in a friend so why in her? I’m not sure my sister-in-law was so happy).
    So I’m agreed with Amy. Good on you for saying something in your home – just no apologies next time. Her daughter can be a welcome guest but on your terms. I’m sure you’ll find she responds very well to boundaries, and it will mean a great deal to your friend that she is accepted and not judged. Have you thought that she probably didn’t follow through with the threat of going home because she just wanted to have a nice day with her friends (you)? The dynamic between parent and child is as complex as adult relationships, you simply don’t KNOW if she’s doing a bad job. There could be so much much more going on.

    +1

  13. kim Oct 21 at 10:51 am Reply Reply

    See, I think Dayna was perfectly within her rights. It was the kids’ behavior that was the problem, and she addressed the behavior that was affecting her. She didn’t say “you kids sit down and shut up.” She said, “I need you to stop running in front of me.” If the kids are old enough to play unsupervised, they’re old enough to understand their behavior is adversely affecting others. For the record, if an adult was blocking my view inappropriatelly, I’d ask him or her to stop, too.
    As a teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time on yard duty, and I have no problem translating that to playgrounds. I’m not harsh, I don’t make value judgements. I’m just matter of fact. Throwing sand, hitting or pushing, or bullying is not ok. Jumping on my couch is not ok, Most kids take it as the reminder it is. And if a parent gets bent out if shape over the fact that I’ve said so, well, that’s their problem. A playground is a community environment

  14. A Oct 21 at 5:37 pm Reply Reply

    I discipline other people’s kids all the time, I just try to be polite about it. Some examples: Walking home from school a group of older kids were throwing snowballs and littler kids were scared. I said, “Hey guys, we’ve got younger kids here, let’s wait for the snowballs until later, okay?” They stopped immediately. A 3 year old is running around my house like a maniac, snatching my kids toys and turning the lights on and off. “Sweetie, let’s leave the lights on so we can see. And let’s find you a toy to play with, we don’t snatch things away from each other. How about this one?”
    Most of the time if I keep my tone light and try to address them on an equal footing it goes well and other parents don’t get upset.

    One notable exception was when I was a teenager and snatched a toddler out of a pool when her waterwings came off, then carried her to her inattentive mother explaining calmly what happened. I got cursed out for touching her child (who was clinging to me in terror, I might add). The mom was probably just terrified that her kid could have drowned and it would have been her fault, but it still stung.

  15. amber Oct 24 at 10:25 am Reply Reply

    Everyone has different opinions on what ‘acceptable’ behaviour is really. I belong to a lot of parenting boards and definition of ‘how kids should act’ is VAST. I’ve had people tell me my kids were bothering them and tried to fix it and other people tell me am being too fussy. We live in a very close knit community and if we are someplace and they are running around (as they often do) – at the town fair for example or the playground – and someone tells them to knock something off, they are expected to listen. If they are at someone’s house and they aren’t obeying house rules – you bet my friends can tell them to behave! If we are in the store and someone freaks out because they are crying – I’m more likely to get upset at the person because they are a stranger and its an entirely different situation. If that makes sense.

  16. Eileen Oct 24 at 2:46 pm Reply Reply

    I’m a children’s librarian in a public library and a well to-do suburb. Many of the kids here are very poorly disciplined, and it falls to the staff to set the kids straight, which can vary from unpleasant (how dare you dicipline my child!) to frustrating (oh, he’s such a handful, isn’t he?), depending on how parents react. My coworkers and I are of the opinion that a lot of people are defensive because they are embarassed because they have absolutely no idea how to handle these kids. On a side note, I’m part of a mommy group in which we’ve more or less developed an understanding that it’s okay to gently discipline other people’s kids or tell the parent that their child is misbehaving. It mostly works. Parents that don’t discipline their kids just aren’t invited back.

  17. Karen Oct 24 at 3:03 pm Reply Reply

    I want to second Amy’s comments about special needs. Two years ago, We attended a playdate with a mom who knew my son was diagnosed with a learning disability. She had a bat in the playroom, and my 3 year old son naturally wanted to play with it. The woman cleared the loveseat and grabbed it from him, shouted, “No, we do not play with this in the house!” and proceeded to march back to the kitchen. I was mortified because she only reacted this way because I told her his diagnosis. She assumed his inability to speak meant he was intellectually disabled and was going to start swinging? Why have it in the toy room in the first place? If I had noticed half a second later, I would have done it myself, in a calmer, more respectable manner. I have not spoken to her since.

    My son no longer has the diagnosis but she made her decision about him that day.

  18. Heather Oct 27 at 3:08 am Reply Reply

    With my close mommy friends we have an understanding that we can “group parent’ we all have similar expectations from our 2 1/2 year olds and they know that since i have twins we have an extra emphasis on sharing/taking turns in my house. That makes our playdates so much easier and more enjoyable.

    With other kids though I have a much harder time. I find most of the moms aren’t as strict as us about those things and I’m constantly caught trying to explain to my kids why it’s ok for those kids to take things out of their hands and not share/take turns or even to get physical with them (biting/hitting/pushing). It makes it really awkward for me and I’ve started distancing myself from some of our get togethers just to save my kids the distress.
    I will say things for their safety but it seems like such a fine line :(

  19. The gold digger Oct 30 at 10:25 am Reply Reply

    Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent that I have no problems whatsoever disciplining other peoples’ children, especially in my house. However, I should not have to tell someone else’s kid not to jump on my newly-upholstered white sofa (“In this house, we don’t put our shoes on the sofa”) when his mother is sitting right there.

    And I shouldn’t have to tell the second grader to 1. stop opening and closing all the cupboards and the fridge, 2. to leave the blinds alone, and 3. not to touch the things on the shelf when his parents are there.

    And I should not have had to tell the five year old at Macy’s to stop jumping on that bed. Honestly.

  20. Stacy Nov 04 at 4:37 pm Reply Reply

    Ugh, this is such a minefield.  I have a friend whose “attempts” at boundaries and discipline do not seem to interest her children in the least.  I never have her at my house because I find it so aggravating to constantly tell her kids “no we don’t do that” lest my own child look on with wide eyes and incredulous look at me, like WHAT!? I don’t get to do that!! I feel bad that our friendship has suffered and I have been too afraid of confrontation to say anything to her.  Frankly, I just try to meet her in public places like parks or the zoo. She must suspect something, but it’s just too tricky to broach.  She keeps a blog and she is always excusing her children’s behavior as “spirited” and that she thinks people who demand good behavior are raising little robots devoid of personality and spunk.  So, knowing that she thinks this – how could I possibly ask her to demand her kid’s follow my rules?  My rules that make my child a little well behaved robot. As for me – I don’t intentionally “discipline” other people’s children – but having been a professional childcare provider, I hate sitting back and watching bad behavior at a playground or in my presence.  I will say something, usually in a “nice” way but well loud enough for the child’s mother/parent to hear when possible. :)

  21. Beatrice Jun 08 at 1:02 pm Reply Reply

    I am so for disciplining other people’s kids when the parents are absent or not doing a good job of it themselves. It is YOUR house and YOUR rules and if anybody doesn’t like it, then they can just not come over. My friend, a single mother, has a very spoiled seven-year-old who doesn’t listen as well. They were over my house and I caught her walking around with a very expensive electronic gadget after she was told not to touch anything.  Mom said nothing to her. I took the gadget away, and scolded her telling her that she should NOT touch things that didn’t belong to her. The brat (yes she’s a BRAT!) hits me in the back when I turned around to put the gadget away! It took every ounce of my strength not to smack her and her mom looked on and did NOTHING! I asked her if she was going to do anything to her and she responded with a weak “well…” and a disgusted look on her face towards me. ( Can you believe it?)
    I don’t think that I want that kid in my house again!

  22. Shonda Hall Dec 12 at 6:17 pm Reply Reply

    you were so right to talk to that child…I discipline other people’s children all day long. I work at a daycare on an Air Force Base, and I work with two year olds…sometimes, you just have to say something to them…there has to be consequences for misbehavior. some of the time, I have to tell them the right thing to do and then have the child say: “Yes ma’am.” and then have them do as they are told.

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