Should You Discipline Someone Else’s Child?

by Betsy brown Braun

It’s hard enough to raise your own child—teaching him the rules of the road, guiding him as he learns how to “play nicely”—but what happens when a child who is not yours is in need of some pointed guidance (a swift kick in the pants!)?

You’re having a playdate, and the guest grabs a toy (your child’s favorite Thomas car) out of your child’s hands.  The grabber’s mom observes without reaction.

You’re at the park, and a girl you don’t know throws sand at your child. The sand thrower’s mom is engrossed in a phone conversation.

You’re walking toward the school parking lot, and out of nowhere a classmate gives your child a good push. The pusher’s mom says, “Oh, boys will be boys,” and keeps walking.

Who could forget the mother in the movie, So This Is 40, when she blasts her son’s nemesis with a barrage of heated, directed, spicy language? If the desire to do this hasn’t happened already, believe me, your day will come. Controlling your own reaction and temper is critical to this whole question of dealing with other people’s kids. So, let me start by saying, it is never acceptable for a parent to IMPOSE her own mother lion rage on another child. Never. You are an adult, and you must get your own feelings under control, remembering that you are a model for your child.

Knowing when or if to discipline other people’s children is tricky business.  When you are the parent in charge and no other adult is supervising, the answer is easy: Step in and deal with it appropriately.  But when the other child’s parent is on the scene, it gets complicated.

Most parents will agree that it is usually crossing the line to correct or discipline someone else’s child. After all, when were you appointed the behavior police?  And even though the word discipline derives from the Latin root word which means teach, it is not your job to reprimand or to teach other people’s children.  While I do believe that raising a child “takes a village,” unless it is commonly practiced and understood that all the tribal elders participate in the child rearing (sometimes seen in close, extended families), in most cases your instruction will not be welcomed by the other present parent.

Each family has different values, different ideas about parenting, and a different tolerance for certain child behaviors. Not only might your and another’s parenting styles be light years apart, but your uninvited intervention will likely sting; it may offend, embarrass, or give the message of your negative judgment…even if you are right. Look out for trouble then, as it’s no longer a problem just between the kids.

Knowing whether to intervene with someone else’s child has everything to do with three things:  1) safety (everyone’s) 2) your relationship with the child and his parent, and 2) your child.

Safety needs no explanation; danger requires immediate action.

Number two, your relationship with child and his parent is interesting and variable. Even if it is your own nephew or the child of your best friend, the other parent may be highly sensitive. If however, you have historically been close and at ease enough with the other child and his family to have stepped in, it may be okay. You must always keep in mind that this is not your child and you must handle with care.

But number three, your child…he is your priority. He is the one whose teacher you are. He will learn from observing everything you and everyone else does—how you react, what other children are permitted to do…or not. This is what I call “ambient learning.”  While the other parent might shine-on her child’s misbehavior with “It’s just what kids do,” it is your responsibility to teach your child, directly and indirectly.  That just might mean stopping or redirecting another child’s undesirable behavior. If your child has been told not to throw sand, he needs to hear you uphold that rule, perhaps telling the other child the same. It’s about your child.

Consider the following in deciding to deal with the misbehavior of a child who is not yours:

  • If you are the adult in charge, be in chargekindly but firmly. Your child is watching.
  • Your house, your rules.  Everyone needs to abide by them. If you need to correct the child guest, you can explain to the guest mother, “I am helping [my daughter] Amanda to understand that our house rules are for everyone. I hope you understand.”
  • Delivery is everything. Speaking up and speaking kindly is imperativeespecially if the guest’s mom is present“So much noise hurts my ears.  [To the guest] Please help me by using your inside voice.” And then to the guest mom, “I am working on this very issue with Amanda. It helps when she knows it goes for everyone.”
  • Be gently encouraging. When the other parent is non-reactive to her child’s misbehavior regardless of where you are, try saying, “It looks like Jason needs a little help, but I don’t want to overstep my bounds.”
  • Simply stating the rules can be enough.Saying, “There is no pushing. That’s the rule.” will stop be action and can be just enough intervention. No lecture needed, please.
  • Keep your own anger (and your bossiness) in check.It will leak and cause problems beyond a child’s misbehavior.
  • Talk to your own child.When addressing the other child is iffy, talk to your own child, knowing that the aggressor is also hearing the message and knows that someone is looking out. “That boy has not learned that is it never okay to kick sand at someone.”

And of course, keep that ol’ Golden Rule in mind: Do unto others…It’s still true


Betsy Brown Braun, best selling author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins) and You’re Not The Boss Of Me: Brat proofing Your Four To Twelve Year Old (HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant, and founder of Parenting Pathways®, Inc. Her parenting expertise has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Real Simple, American Baby, Cookie, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, In Style, Parenting, Parents, Pregnancy and Newborn, Twins, Woman’s Day, and, Working Mother, Colorado Parent Magazine, Ohio Valley Parent Magazine among other publications. She has shared her expertise on the Today Show multiple times. Other television appearances have included Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, The Early Show, Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonight, Fox & Friends, Hallmark’s Home and Family, KCBS, KNBC, and Fox News LA. She contributes to KNX news radio on child development, and has been a guest on countless radio programs nationwide, including NPR.