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Disciplining Other People’s Children

By Amalah

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!

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

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

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

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