Disciplining Another Person's Child

Father giving daughter lecture
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When it comes to kids misbehaving, some parents wonder if it's ever okay to discipline another parent's child. Some situations—especially when children put themselves or others at risk—demand adult intervention. But other times, it may not be wise to do or say anything.

Know When and How to Step In

Disciplining another person's child can make even the most seasoned parent cringe and retreat. On one hand, if you have a toddler or a preschooler, you're probably too preoccupied making sure your own children act appropriately to even think about addressing another child's misbehavior.

But, there are times when an out-of-control child is damaging property, hurting family pets, or putting your child or others at risk. As a result, you will need to do something.

Things to Consider

Before you take action or say anything to another person's child, there are some things that you need to consider:

  • Make sure you know what's really going on. Things may not be exactly as they seem.
  • Give kids a chance to correct their own behaviors before jumping in.
  • Talk to the child's parents first if they are there, and allow them to take the lead.
  • Respect the child's autonomy and refrain from putting your hands on another person's child—unless, of course, you're catching them before they do something dangerous like run in front of car or jump into the deep end of a pool.
  • Remember that the goal of discipline is to teach, not punish. So make sure your actions are teaching in nature.
  • Explain your decisions to the parents after intervening.
  • Regardless of whether they were there or not, make communication with the parents a priority.

Likewise, different situations require different responses. Here are some additional ideas on how to address behavior issues in different situations.

When You're Hosting

If you're hosting a birthday party or playgroup, then by default you're in charge of all aspects of the event, including how the kids behave and interact with one another. Like it or not, if a tot's actions are ruining the day or putting others at risk and the child's parent isn't there or doesn't address the behavior, you may need to do something.

Before you do, though, take a minute or two to think about how you want to address the misbehavior. You also need to be sure you are calm and tactful in your approach. Yelling at another person's child, removing them from the situation, or putting them in timeout is likely to create more issues.

Although you want the behavior to stop, you need to remember that you are not the parent. You are limited in what you can and cannot do. You could get yourself into legal trouble if you take it too far.

As a result, you need to be considerate of the other parent's feelings and rules regarding parenting. As long as the behavior is not harmful in some way, you should consider ignoring it. Of course, if the behavior is something that needs to be addressed because the child is going to damage something, disrupt the event, or inadvertently hurt someone or themselves, it needs to be addressed.

Start by making a general announcement to the group about what is acceptable and what isn't instead of singling out the child. For instance, you can indicate what items or areas in your house are off-limits or that the noise level needs to come down because the family in the apartment next door has a baby. You could even say that there is no rough play in the house.

If that doesn't work, you could consider quietly talking to the child who is being disruptive and ask that they change their behavior. Or, you could try distracting them with something else so that the behavior ends. You could even ask the parent to intervene if they are there. Just choose your words carefully and try not to come off as judgmental.

When Parents Aren't Around

If the parent is not present, the situation becomes trickier. Friendships have been ruined and playgroups disbanded over hurt feelings and strong disagreements over the handling of behavioral problems.

Keep in mind, every family has different expectations and rules about acceptable behavior, and when someone else disciplines their child, the family may take the action personally or as a criticism of their childrearing abilities. Not taking action, however, may cause other issues.

The easiest (and safest) way to discipline other people's children is by engaging them in a different activity or physically removing them from the situation and telling them why they can't continue to misbehave.

How you proceed depends on the actions and age of the child. Avoid giving your intervention a disciplinary label, such as a "timeout." When you put another person's child in timeout, many parents take offense, regardless of what their kids have done.

Instead of implementing consequences, try saying something like, "Jensen, can you come and sit over here for a minute." Once you remove the child from the situation, you can help them calm down and explain how you would like them to behave for the rest of the activity. Then, when the parent returns, make sure you talk about what happened and what course of action you took. Nearly every parent wants to be informed about what happened when they weren't around.

Plus, many parents want to continue the conversation with their kids to be sure they are better behaved in the future. Be prepared, though, for the parent to take offense or to get upset. Parents are very protective of their children, even when they know they are wrong. So be patient and answer their questions without making accusations or being condescending.

When the Parents Are There

Too often, adults wait until a child is completely out of control before taking action. They hope the child will settle down on their own or that their parent will intervene. But waiting too long to step in can actually allow the bad behavior to get worse. Instead, do what most early educators recommend and calmly take action when a problem develops.

If the child's parents are present, talk to them about your concerns without demanding action or being judgmental.

If they ignore you or minimize their child's behavior, don't press the issue. Ask yourself if the behavior truly needs to be addressed or if your tolerance level is simply different from the other parent's.

However, if the behavior needs to be addressed because someone might be injured or something might be damaged, consider taking action on your own, especially if you are the host or the event is in your home. Start by using distraction or redirection first. These tools are often the best options when someone else's child is misbehaving.

For instance, if the child is running through your house and touching things they shouldn't, consider taking all the kids outside to play a game or blow bubbles. Or, if you cannot go outside, consider organizing an indoor game, having a snack break, or popping in a video for a little downtime.

Then, down the road, if this parent's child continues to stress you out each time you are together, you may want to limit your interactions. Other options include limiting the timeframe for the playgroup when you are the host, or picking more neutral locations to get together so that you can leave when you want if the behavior begins to stress you out too much.

When to Take a Step Back

When it comes to disciplining another person's child, it's always best to err on the side of caution. Most of the time, if the parents are there, you should allow them to take the lead.

You can bring the behavior to their attention or explain what your house rules are if they are at your home, but try to refrain from putting another person's child in timeout or taking away privileges. You also can establish your house rules, try redirecting kids, or even use distraction to change behavior. But, for the most part, it's best to avoid using disciplinary actions against another person's child.

The goal of your intervention should always be to keep kids safe. You should only try to prevent the misbehavior and never punish the child. Ideally, if the parent is there, bring the behavior to their attention, and allow them to take action.

Of course, if the child or another child is in imminent danger, by all means intervene and deal with the consequences later. As an adult, when you see something dangerous, you have a responsibility to act in an appropriate way. For instance, you would never want to hold back if you see another person's child running after a ball and into the street. By all means, stop them.

Behavior Warranting Immediate Action

Every family has its own standards and guidelines for disciplining kids. Consequently, applying your standards to another parent's child isn't always a wise choice. But there are some behaviors that call for adults to take immediate action even if it's someone else's child who is acting out. The key is that the behavior would have dire consequences if left unchecked.

When to Take Action

You should take action if you witness a child engaging in any of the following behaviors:

  • Engaging in aggressive behavior that is hurting (or could hurt) another child, such as hitting, punching, biting, kicking, or using a toy as a weapon like a bat or any hard object
  • Doing something that could harm themselves or others, such as running toward or playing in the street or throwing hard objects
  • Being destructive, such as tearing things up, knocking things down, or ruining something
  • Doing something alarming or dangerous, like hurting a family pet or wheeling a baby around who is in a stroller

How to Prevent Escalation

You can take steps when planning events like parties or hosting playgroups to prevent children from behaving badly. For instance, use age-appropriate language to establish simple rules for toddlers and preschoolers before the party or playgroup begins. Childcare providers often start with a "circle time" where they discuss expectations and rules.

If possible, enlist the help of other parents to assist with enforcing the rules and invite all parents to listen. If everyone hears the guidelines, then everyone knows what to expect from the beginning.

Event hosts, like those at party places, pools, and trampoline parks, also can tell children what is expected, like keeping their hands to themselves and walking between activities. They also sometimes let guests know that children who don't follow these rules will be removed.

If the activity is a playgroup, parents can set rules ahead of time and agree to appropriate actions if a child gets out of control. In these cases, parents often are expected to supervise their own children.

Keep in mind that, when you're planning an event, if you have too many kids to adequately supervise and manage without a lot of help, you've probably invited too many kids. Remember that a smaller group will most likely be easier to look after, not to mention more fun.

A Word From Verywell

All children misbehave from time to time. If a child acts up at an event you're hosting or supervising, make sure to keep your cool. After all, your child may be the next little one to act up. By taking a child's misbehavior in stride, you can make sure the activities remain fun for all.

By Robin McClure
 Robin McClure is a public school administrator and author of 6 parenting books.