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Basic Dad: When — and How — Should I Discipline Someone Else’s Child?

Advice from a teacher, a social worker, a Chuck E. Cheese employee and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

Is it okay to discipline someone else’s kid if they’re messing with my kid?

Some variation of this has happened to me several times now: I’m at the park with my daughter and some little jerk pushes her, knocks her down on his way to the slide or otherwise just hassles her in a way she’s clearly unhappy with. Typically, there’s no parent paying attention to this kid, so he’s just allowed to do whatever he wants. My initial instinct is to take the little brat’s head off, but, y’know, this kind of thing is frowned upon. Instead I freeze up, not sure how to react: I just stand there and let it happen, like a punk.

Of course, this toddler has no idea that he just won this test of wills against a grown man. In fact, he probably doesn’t even know he did anything wrong, especially since his parents clearly aren’t doing their job. But still, I should be allowed to say something to this kid, right? However uncomfortable it is, as an adult trying to protect his child, I should be allowed to maintain order in some way.

Clearly I need some guidance on this one—otherwise my options are letting my kid get pushed around, or finally snapping and getting banned from playgrounds forever (or worse).

The Expert Advice

Patty Holland, Bus Driver: Disciplining someone else’s child is like walking on eggshells, because you don’t know how the parent is going to react. For safety reasons, there’s behavior that’s simply not acceptable on a bus, so oftentimes what I’ll do when a child is misbehaving is find an opportunity to isolate them. When all the other kids get off the bus, I’ll ask them to stay behind and I’ll have an eye-to-eye conversation with them. I talk to them in a nice way, with respect, so I get respect back.

I let them know, “Here are the rules,” and that they need to abide by those rules. I let them know that they aren’t in trouble, but that it’s just a warning. If talking doesn’t work, the other reprimand is a writeup or talking to the teacher or their parents, and they really don’t want you talking to their parents.

Veronica Acevedo, Clinical Social Worker: It’s completely appropriate to discipline other people’s children when they’re in your care. If a parent has entrusted you, it’s okay to discipline them appropriately. Also, if you know the child, then you likely know the parent and you can mimic their disciplinary style, or say something like, “Would your mommy or daddy want you to be doing this?” Remind them of the expectations set by their own parents and that those expectations still apply, despite being in someone else’s home.

For a child not put in your care, like one on the playground, if they’re being disrespectful and it’s your own child who’s on the receiving end of that, I’d try to find the parent and let them know. If they can’t be found, or you aren’t sure who they are, it’s okay to let the child know that, as an adult, you’re not going to allow a child to hurt another child. So it’s okay to say something like, “Don’t push,” or to ask them to apologize.

A lot of times, children are just reacting to their impulses, and if you bring attention to that, they’ll likely stop. But if they talk back or become oppositional, it’s wise not to engage in the power struggle — that’s the time you have to try to find that kid’s parent.

Christine Erickson, Second Grade Teacher: From a teacher’s point of view, we get them to reflect on their behavior. We go over how it looks to listen, share and cooperate. We model it, and we talk about what they can do to change their behavior. And if they don’t do it, they know there are consequences, like if they aren’t cooperating in a group, maybe they have to do the work by themselves. Or if they fool around during computer time, they get off the computer, and they’re not allowed on it for the rest of the day. All reasonable consequences.

If it’s more serious behavior, they get separated immediately or sent straight to the office.

Outside of being a teacher, as a mother, I don’t hesitate to discipline other people’s kids at all. I’ve done it many times. I shouldn’t have to do it, but I totally will if their parent isn’t speaking up. I’ve never had anyone get mad at me for it… except my brother. He got kind of pissed once.

Matt Brescia, Father of Three: As a parent, I quickly discovered that there are some parents out there who just don’t give a fuck, so sometimes you do have to speak up.

For a situation on the playground, my instinct wouldn’t be to intervene right away. If my kid is old enough to work things out for themselves, I might empower them to speak up and tell the other child that it’s their turn and to “please wait.” My kid may not know what to do at first, but I’ll give him some information on how to deal with it.

If it continues, then I’d speak up and say nicely to all of the kids, “Guys, we have a line, wait your turn.” If that doesn’t work, then it’s okay to talk directly to that kid. A general rule would be that whenever a kid is doing something that’s ruining the other kid’s time, you definitely have a right to tell that kid to “stop it.”

Now, if you have another kid over at your house as a playdate and their parent isn’t around, you pretty much just treat them like they were your kid. If they start to do something you wouldn’t let your kid do, you talk to them and stop them there.

That said, for a kid that’s at my house, my number one goal is that they’re safe. If they’re doing things that make them unsafe, it’s instantly going to be squashed because you want to make sure you return them to their parents in the same condition you got them in.

Lauryn Bervine, Employee at Chuck E. Cheese’s: As a Chuck E. Cheese’s employee, we’re not supposed to be responsible for kids, but there are so many times where a parent will buy their kids tokens and not pay any attention to them until it’s time to leave.

We see kids running, knocking other kids down, stealing or putting soda in the water cup — that happens all the time. We usually end up saying, “Stop doing this,” or “Stop doing that.” We could try to find their parents, but it’s really hard to do that, especially when it’s crowded. A lot of the time, we resort to telling them that they’ll have to leave, or that, “Chuck E. won’t come out if you don’t stop being bad.”

More than anything else, that usually works.