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How To Discipline Someone Else's Kid

When a 9-year-old neighbor threw a ball at his 6-year-old son's head, Jonathan Bloomberg, of Skokie, IL, just couldn't hold back. He told the misbehaving boy to go home.

As a child psychiatrist and the father of five, Dr. Bloomberg was sure that his son would appreciate the way he'd handled the situation. Instead, the boy objected and claimed that his dad had been unfair. "I tend to jump in too much to protect my children," says Dr. Bloomberg, who admits that disciplining someone else's child can be pretty tricky, no matter what your background and expertise.

Disciplining your child's friend  -- how, when, and even if you should  -- is a challenge we all face. Often, it's a straight-forward issue. If a young guest is destroying your child's toys or trying to take a knife from the kitchen, you have no choice but to step in. Some situations are trickier, requiring careful thinking and diplomacy. Before you read the riot act to a kid who isn't yours, consider your alternatives.

PLAYGROUND POLITICS

What should you do, for instance, when your 2-year-old daughter is playing in the sandbox at the park and another toddler plops himself down next to her and grabs her pail?

  • Leave things alone?

  • Ask who the child's parent is so that you can talk about the situation?

  • Tell the boy to give the pail back?

Toddlers don't yet understand the niceties of ownership. If they see something they want, they'll take it without a second thought  -- such a common behavior that your daughter may not seem bothered that her pail's been swiped. If this is the case, don't interfere. She'll probably work things out herself; by rushing in, you'll deprive her of that opportunity.

If your child is upset, getting the offender's parent or caregiver involved could be a good idea, if you can speak discreetly. (Publicly pointing out misbehavior is likely to embarrass everyone.) Telling the boy to give back the pail probably won't help. In fact, odds are he won't even pay attention to you. After all, he doesn't know you and doesn't see anything wrong with what he's done.

Instead, you could walk over to the sandbox. Don't go directly to the pail-grabber, but crouch next to your child. State a simple rule: "We always ask permission before we take something." Suggest that the kids play with the pail together. This approach focuses on their needs.

Sometimes a parent will become angry or defensive if you reprimand her child, no matter how gently you do it. If that happens, stay calm. Instead of talking about her child directly, mention that your own kid's been known to do the same thing. You could also say, "What do you do when this happens to your son? I'm never sure what to say!" This is less likely to put the other parent on the defensive, and focuses the discussion on solving the problem.

PROTECTING YOUR TURF

In your own home, what you say goes. "I have certain house rules that hold no matter what. If a child isn't following them, it isn't fair to the other kids," says Lenore O'Connor, who lives in upstate New York and is the mother of Garrett, 2.

You may not always know how a parent will react if you discipline her child, nor is it always clear what sort of punishment to dole out to that child. Let's say that the 5-year-old next door has come over to play with your son. He's brought along his water pistol, so of course your child promptly produces his own. You tell the boys that they can only use their water pistols outside  -- but ten minutes later, you catch them squirting each other in the living room. When you remind them that it's not allowed in the house, the visitor replies that his parents let him shoot his water pistol inside. Do you:

  • Say that you doubt that's true?

  • Give them both a time-out?

  • Take away his toy?

It's a safe bet that the other parents don't let their son shoot a water pistol in the house, unless it's in the bathtub. Even if they do, it's irrelevant: You've stated your reasonable rule already, and kids this age have learned in preschool that different places and people have different rules for behavior.

I wouldn't recommend giving the kids a time-out either. At first it may seem like a good idea (especially if they're hyped up), but the offense in this situation is relatively trivial. The boys probably just got carried away. Better to save a time-out for when a visiting child (or your own) is really out of control and needs some help calming down. In that case, you may need to separate the children for a few minutes and then redirect their activities to something a little less stimulating. If you know from experience that a certain child is likely to get a little wild, talk to his parents ahead of time. Ask them what helps their son calm down when he gets wound up, and what they would like you to do if it happens.

Your best bet: Take away the water pistols  -- from both boys. It's a consequence that's directly related to the behavior, so it drives home the importance of your no-squirting house rule. Removing each child's water pistol also helps focus this message on the rule infraction rather than on whose parent you are. Return the toy to the boy's parent instead of to him. This will give you the opportunity to discuss what happened and to mention that you took away both children's toys.

When it comes to disciplining someone else's child in your home, keep in mind that:

  • You have the right to set the rules. Just because a visiting child claims that he's allowed to do something at his house doesn't mean you have to let him do it in yours. Sticking to your limits will help your own child feel secure.

  • You don't have to explain or justify your house rules. Just make them simple and clear.

  • Children may not be aware of behavior alternatives that adults take for granted. When a youngster talks with his mouth full, telling him that he shouldn't do it won't be as effective as asking him to swallow his food before he speaks.

  • Large gatherings require a different set of tactics. A young child at a birthday party, for example, can easily become overexcited. To help him settle down, bring him into a separate, quiet room for a few minutes, away from the stimulation. This can be done without it seeming like punishment. Acknowledge how excited he's feeling, and point out that he'll have an even better time if he calms down.

MINOR OFFENSES

Breaking a rule is one thing; less overt forms of misbehavior are another. Say your 3-year-old daughter's friend has been whiny from the moment her mother dropped her off for a playdate. When you suggest that the girls get out the dolls, she gripes, "I don't like her dolls!" When you offer grilled cheese for lunch, you get an immediate, "I hate that!" Your nerves are fraying and you're not sure you'll make it through another two hours of this. Should you:

  • Call the child's mother to pick her daughter up early?

  • Tell the girl that whining isn't allowed in your home?

  • Help the girls find an activity they'll enjoy doing?

I'd start by giving the child the benefit of the doubt. Kids this age are usually better behaved at other people's homes than at their own because they don't feel as secure. A whiny kid may be tired; when my son was 3, whining was a sure sign that he was getting sick. See if you can get the girls involved in a quiet activity, like watching a video. (They may even nod off).

Certainly you can explain that whining isn't allowed, although it may not do any good if she's used to getting what she wants that way. Show her a more appropriate way of talking to you, and pay extra attention to her when she uses a better tone of voice. She'll probably go back to whining when her mother picks her up  -- but then, of course, it's no longer your problem!

If you're really at the end of your rope, call the other mother, but choose your words carefully: Parents  -- and in my experience, especially fathers  -- tend to be defensive when other people criticize their child, taking it as a reflection of their skills and worth. Rather than focus on your guest's insufferable tone, begin by saying a couple of good (and honest) things about her. ("She talks so well.") Then mention that she's acting out of sorts and seems very needy today. Perhaps it would be best if she went home early.

By couching it in these terms, you can describe the situation without causing defensiveness and anger.

ON THE RECEIVING END

What if your child is the one being disciplined by an outsider? When she's clearly misbehaving, you should expect any responsible adult to set limits and to discipline appropriately.

But suppose a dressing down isn't called for? Jill Fanuzzi, a college-admissions counselor on Long Island, NY, found herself in this situation when her son was 3. "He was showing a friend's 11-month-old his toy truck. The other mother asked my son not to let her child have the truck, but the baby grabbed it from him. The mother yelled at my son so loudly he started to cry," recalls Fanuzzi. "I felt she handled this all wrong, and she put me in the position of having to somehow explain to my child why 'the lady' had yelled at him."

I coped with a similar dilemma about a year ago, when my son, Michael, who was 9 at the time, and I were at a hotel pool. Michael jumped in, inadvertently splashing water near a man lying on a lounge chair. He called my son out of the pool and told him loudly that jumping wasn't allowed. There weren't any "No Jumping/No Diving" signs, leaving me to wonder if I should:

  • Politely point out the absence of official pool rules to the other adult?

  • Suggest to him that if he were to move his chair back a few feet he wouldn't get splashed?

  • Tell my child to stop jumping into the pool?

Though it was tempting, I restrained myself from acting on either of the first two options. The issue was trivial and not worth arguing about. Suggesting that he move his chair wouldn't have helped, even though it was the most practical solution. He would simply have gotten defensive about his "right" to sit wherever he wanted.

My goal was to let my son have fun and burn off some energy. Getting into an argument wouldn't help achieve that goal  -- even if I was right. So I quietly told Michael that we'd swim at the other end of the pool. If the man left, he could jump in again. Sometimes, I explained, you have to choose your battles carefully.

But in most cases, a good first step is to ask yourself what you'd want another parent to do if your child were acting this way. Sometimes the best response can be compassion, guidance, or even doing nothing at all.

Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Harvard University and the author of five books on child development.

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