My son still talks about the time we were watching one of his friends while the boy’s mom went to see the doctor. Our little guest began to terrorize the guinea pigs right away. “Gently! Gently!” I kept saying, as the 4-year-old practically squashed Peanut. I finally shuttled him into another room (above his very loud objections) and spent the rest of his visit guarding our pets’ safety.
I wasn’t sure how far I could go in correcting him. In hindsight, a firm “No, we’re not playing with the guinea pigs, period” might have kept him away. But I feared a full-blown tantrum (not to mention his mom’s angry reaction), so I said nothing. While it can be a major challenge to deal with your own child’s misbehavior, it’s that much tougher to handle another kid’s, especially when you’re the sole adult in charge. The situation can be equally thorny if the offending child’s parent is sitting on a nearby playground bench, ignoring his misbehavior.
“Disciplining someone else’s child can get sticky,” says Neil McNerney, a family counselor in South Riding, Virginia. “If you try to correct his behavior, his mom may feel that you’re saying, ‘You’re not doing a good job of parenting, and I have to show you how it’s done.’ Nobody likes that.” Still, that doesn’t mean you simply need to mind your own business when another kid acts out.
If you follow these guidelines, you can keep the peace without ruffling any feathers.
1. Assess the situation. If you spot a child at the playground poking your kid with a stick, you’ll probably do something. But if she’s merely hogging your daughter’s favorite game on a playdate at your house, your role is less clear-cut. “You want your child’s feelings to be respected and for her to feel safe,” says Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., professor of cognitive behavioral therapy at New York University.“But if she’s 4 or older, you might be better off letting her try to work things out for herself.”
Tara Kluth, a mom of four in Rochester, Minnesota, sets the same ground rules for visiting kids as she does for her own. “At the beginning of a playdate, I’ll let them know that if they ride past the chalk lines on the sidewalk and driveway they’ll lose their biking privileges,” she says. “I’ve had to enforce it -- and there have been some tears. But it’s a matter of safety.” However, if two kids at the park won’t let your child play with them, it’s not your job to convince them to do so. Instead, redirect her and support her through the potential feelings of rejection. “Find another friend or a different activity,” suggests Dr. Maidenberg. “Get her started building her own sand castleor seeing how high she can swing. Select activities that foster self-confidence and self-acceptance.”
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2. Compose yourself. When you need to step in -- if, say, a child starts pinching your son -- your Mama Bear instincts will likely launch into overdrive. But shouting won’t solve anything. “Keep in mind that you’re a role model for your child,” says Gariane Gunter, M.D., a psychiatrist in Leesville, South Carolina. Take a few deep, calming breaths or count slowly to ten before you say anything. Chances are the kid’s behavior, while unacceptable, is still age-appropriate. He simplywasn’t thinking before he acted.
3. Talk to the other parent. Unless the behavior needs to be addressed immediately (when a kidis climbing on furniture or pushing other children off the monkey bars, for example), let her parent have first dibs at correcting it. “It’s not only your child’s friendship that’s at stake but also your relationship with the mom,” notes McNerney. If she declines to act and the behavior continues, say something like, “Do you mind talking to Bella? She won’t give Grace a turn, and I think they’re both getting upset.” Simply share what you’re observing, and lether take it from there.
Tara Harkins, of Oradell, New Jersey, has found that focusing on the facts helps prevent conflicts with other parents. “I’ll let the mom know the impact of the behavior on my kid rather than making her kid out to be wrong,” she says. “That prevents her from getting defensive and turns the conversation toward resolving the conflict.”
4. Follow up (gently) with the child. If the other parent continues to ignore a misbehavior that’s hurting or upsetting your kid (whether it’s pushing, threatening, or using foul language), approach her child in the same calm, friendly manner in which you’d want your child to be addressed: “Wow, Jacob. You seem kind of frustrated. Can you please tell me what’s bothering you instead of hitting Aidan?”
If the child’s mother isn’t there, you might say something like, “I know your mom would want me to remind you that stepping on toys and drawing on the walls is not okay.” Speaking compassionately will help him focus on his poor behavior without making him feel bad about himself. Even though it’s your house, you shouldn’t giveanother kid a consequence unless his mom or dad gives you permission to do so at drop-off, says McNerney.
5. Try again another day. In most cases a simple reminder is all it takes to get a misbehaving kid back on track. But not always. “Everyone has bad days,” says Dr. Maidenberg. “A child may be tired or in an aggressive mood. She’s not always going to play well with others.” When your efforts haven’t stopped a playground bully frombothering your kid, it’s time to leave. Or, if your child’s playmate persists in provoking conflicts, it’s time to call her mom and ask her to pick her up early. The kids will probably get along fine next time.
As a general rule, going on the offensive is risky and prone to backfiring. “A kid was once tossing heavy toys at the playground, and one of them hit my daughter,” says Harkins. She confronted the woman sitting near the boy right away, only to discover that woman wasn’t his mom. “I apologized and explained that I was upset because my child had gotten hurt,” Harkins recalls. Still, that experience showed her how tricky it can be to poke your head intoanother parent’s business. Also, you may not always know the wholestory, and it’s not realistic to have the same expectations for other children as you do for your own.