A few years I was present during a playdate between my son, my then-foster son, and another boy. This third boy took a toy away from my foster son and was refusing to give it back. Because the boy’s parents weren’t there, I eventually stepped in when it was clear he was picking on my foster son, taunting him with the toy he wouldn’t return. When I politely instructed the boy to give the toy back, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “No.”
I’ll admit that I was momentarily baffled by what to do next. At that point, the kids were young enough that we hadn’t yet had many playdates without the other parents there to help supervise. And I’d never had a child (who wasn’t mine, at least) just flat-out refuse to follow my directions. (After blinking a few times, I kindly but firmly explained that one rule I have for playdates is for everyone to play nicely together, and all was well after that.)
Another time, the child of a close friend was acting up on a playdate from the moment she entered the room. After correcting his behaviour, my friend turned to me and said, “I expect you to yell at my kids like they’re your own when I’m not around.” She was mostly joking (but maybe not totally); we laughed and I instructed her to do the same. We weren’t really telling each other to yell at the kids all the time, but we were giving each other permission to step in and be firm whenever necessary. That we trusted each other to enforce the rules in a similar and consistent manner.
But unless you’ve had that direct conversation with someone you’re close to, it can be hard to know when to step in to correct the behaviour of other people’s kids. Deanna deBara writes for MSN.com that when you’re hosting gatherings with kids at your home, for example, you can start by setting clear ground rules up front and getting the kids’ buy-in. That can help head off any issues that might arise from kids simply not knowing your expectations.
But it’s also not a foolproof solution. (Kids are still gonna be kids.) That’s why, as etiquette experts Evie Granville and Sarah Davis tell deBara, if an issue does still arise, you should pause and give their parents a chance to step in first:
This doesn’t always work, but if you notice that a child has broken from any of these rules, or begins acting out, it’s important not to jump up and respond immediately (unless your health is at risk). Remember, this isn’t your kid, so it’s important to give the little one’s parents a chance to take the lead and discipline their son or daughter as they see fit. ″Give the child’s parents enough time to notice troublesome behaviours. Don’t assume that just because they’re not responding right away, they don’t know what’s going on,″ says Granville and Davis. ″Sometimes a parent has a reason for pausing before stepping in.″
If they don’t step in (or they’re not physically present), removing your own child from a situation that is unsafe or inappropriate is often your best bet. But if you do feel you need to step in to correct the other child, they advise you do so only with your best teacher voice (firm and authoritative but kind), and then immediately turn to the parent to apologise for intervening:
″If you speak to someone else’s child within their view, make a point of talking with the parent directly afterward: ‘I’m really sorry to step in, but I could just see that ending in someone getting hurt!’″ explain our experts. ″This gives the parent an opportunity to hear the urgency and concern in your voice, and understand your motives: Not to shame the child or overstep your authority, but to keep everyone safe.″
There are so many variables, though, such as whether the issue is simply a clash of parenting styles or a real safety concern. Your reaction may vary based on your relationship with the other parents, whether they’re not there or, if they are there, are blissfully ignoring a glaringly obvious problem. Perhaps this is an isolated incident — or perhaps it’s a frustrating pattern of behaviour that continues to recur. Maybe it involves a kid at the park who you don’t know at all.
Tell us in the comments: How do you handle behaviour issues with other children? Do you stay out of it unless there is a safety concern? Pull out your best kindergarten teacher voice? Exit quickly with your child, stage left?
Or do you follow my friend’s old-school, it-takes-a-village example and yell at (or correct, or discipline) other people’s kids?