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When is it OK to discipline other people’s kids?

It happened at the dance studio one night, as my daughter and her friends were fooling around before their class started. I was in the waiting room with the other parents when shrieks, stomping and laughter made our heads snap in the direction of a nearby staircase. My daughter and her friends were causing a ruckus and disturbing classes in session.

I darted over and spoke sharply to the group, telling them to lower their voices and get off the dirty, dangerous stairs, which they did. But I was surprised by two things: First, that none of the other kids’ parents moved to stop the behavior. (In fairness, I jumped up pretty quickly.) And second, that no other parent had a problem with me scolding their kid.

The parenting community seems pretty divided on the topic of whether it’s OK to discipline someone else’s offspring. According to a “Today” show survey with more than 8,000 responses, a narrow majority of 52 percent says they’re fine with it.

Disciplining other people’s children is a touchy, tricky, awkward thing — but it’s also part of being a parent. “It can become a can of worms — a really tricky issue depending on who the other parent is and if you know the other parent. It’s a lot harder now than it used to be because the village isn’t there,” says Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and best-selling author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”

When scolding another child is acceptable

If another child is putting herself or your kid in danger, it’s time to play disciplinarian.

I respect your right to set rules and discipline your child as you see fit. I rarely reprimand kids misbehaving in public. However, if they’re in my house or playing with or near my children, I will play the disciplinarian card for these four reasons:

1. If someone is in danger. “Safety is always the top priority when it comes to parenting,” says Borba. So if your child is throwing rocks or pushing on the playground, I will tell him to stop. If she’s trying to grab a knife at a cookout, I will prevent her from doing so. The awkwardness that can come from disciplining another child is nothing compared to the guilt you’ll feel if a child gets hurt and you could have prevented it.

2. If a child is being destructive. If my nieces or nephews are jumping on the furniture or playing a rowdy game of tag around my wine-glass-filled Thanksgiving table, I’m going to say something. My husband once called out a group of teens who left piles of trash at a park and insisted they come back to pick it up (they did). And we stopped another group of kids from vandalizing trees across the street from our house.

“If you don’t stop the destructive behavior you’re witnessing, and your child is watching you let it happen, it becomes a turnaround message. She may think or say, ‘How come they can do it and I can’t?’ It’s a lost character building moment,” Borba says.

3. If they’re breaking a clearly set house rule. If you have young kids, post a short list of rules on the refrigerator, Borba suggests. And when a child comes to your home, take a minute to state a few basic rules in front of your child and the guest before they play. For example, tell them they can go in any room but your bedroom or a sibling’s room, or that the computer is off-limits unless a grown-up is present, Borba says. That way, they know the rules, you know they’ve heard them, and if a rule is broken you’re within your rights to correct the misbehavior.

4. If a child is being a bully. “Any kind of mean-spirited behavior — bullying or mean, cruel behaviors — you can’t let those go. A child could be saying something toxic about another child, you could hear someone spreading rumors about another child, maybe she’s bullying your kid, you must say something,” Borba says.

How to do it

The “how” is where people can get into trouble, she says. “Your goal when disciplining another child is to stop the behavior and make it into a teaching moment,” she says. “You may state the rule and why what they did was wrong. What you can’t do is give the other kid a time out, you can never spank another child, and you can never say that’s a loss of something or offer a consequence. That’s the jurisdiction of the child’s parent.”

Ask yourself how you would want your own child disciplined, and speak to the other child with dignity. Do it quietly (unless the kid is doing something dangerous like putting a fork in a socket — then use your outdoor voice), but don’t yell across a room or storm over in a huff, as that may make kids act out more and throw it back in your face, she says.

Borba says to consider two things when it comes to telling the other parent what happened. First, think about the child’s intent. Was the misbehavior an accident, caused by excitement or done with cruel intentions? If the latter, then you should probably tell the other parent, Borba says. If it’s the first two, you can likely handle it yourself. After all, you don’t want to be a tattletale.

The second thing to consider is that if you don’t share your story with the other parent, the child you scolded likely will — and he’ll do it in a way that makes you the bad guy, she warns. Give the child the option to come clean to his parent in front of you, or speak to the parent with the child present so everyone knows what was said.

Please, do the same to my kids

Are we so insecure about our parenting abilities that accepting help in the discipline department from other parents feels like a threat? 

If my child is behaving badly or putting someone in danger, and I’m either not around or not paying attention, please say something. I subscribe to the “it takes a village” philosophy with children. When I was a kid, other adults in our community sure as heck disciplined me, whether it was a neighbor, a dance teacher, a bus driver — you name it. And they had my parents’ full support.

These days, we’re more insecure about our parenting abilities. We can’t acknowledge that we’re not perfect, and we get upset with other people point out our imperfections. Because that’s what it is: When people discipline our kids, we feel like they’re telling us that our kid is a jerk and we’re not paying attention to them. Our ego is dented, and we may get defensive.

Our children fall under multiple authority figures in their life, from coaches to caregivers to teachers and even medical professionals. Doesn’t it make our job easier, not harder, as parents if we work together to keep our kids in line rather than restrict that responsibility to ourselves?


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