When is it okay to discipline someone else’s child? My husband gets aggravated when our son’s friends misbehave, and is in the habit of telling them to “knock it off.” He has even done so when those children’s parents are present. I agree with him that some of our son’s friends are overindulged and that their parents should be keeping them in line, but I think he is overstepping his bounds.
Not Our Problem
Here’s what you left out of your letter: your husband’s contact information. Clearly, he’s a guy I’d like to hang with — especially at a child’s birthday party. I’m with him on this one, to a point.
For folks trying to raise their sons and daughters to be people who respect others and live within reasonable boundaries, nothing is as aggravating as OPK (Other People’s Kids). They’re why your efforts seem undone at the end of certain school days, and why your child comes home from parties with a new list of demands and a bad case of what our folks called “smart mouth.” In other words, OPK really are your problem.
Before we get to your husband, though, let’s talk about the essential service that the brattiest of your son’s friends provide. To be perfectly Oprah about it, the behavior of OPK makes for great teachable moments: the trick is to focus your teaching on labeling the behavior and not the child, no matter how appropriate the words “spoiled brat” might seem.
Here’s an example: You’re in the cereal aisle when you and your son witness the classic supermarket power struggle not 25 feet in front of you. There’s mother and daughter, and daughter is grabbing the sugary-est of sugar cereals, yelling shrilly over her mother’s protestations until they’re literally having a tug of war over a box with a Cap’n on it. Now, you can’t very well step in, because it isn’t your business, and because there’s no potential for serious harm. (Except maybe to your eardrums.) What you can do is turn your cart around, head to another aisle, and have a chat with your son. “That was very upsetting,” you might start. Then go with a question: “Do you think that’s how to get your way? By whining and carrying on?” Notice that you’ve just posed a question that has a built in answer — and all kinds of implicit condemnation.
But no name-calling. By labeling the behavior as whiny, you’ve made it clear to your own child that acting out like that is unacceptable to you, and you’ve done it in a way that’s firm, but almost collaborative. You didn’t lecture your son — who wasn’t misbehaving — with some form of “You’d better never do that,” but instead gave him an opportunity to see how upset brattiness makes you. In short, you made him feel warned and not blamed.
When your son is in a group, though, and the play is getting either rough or inconsiderate, you and your husband have every right to step in — though again, to correct the behavior, and not label a child. “Knock it off” shows disapproval of what’s going on; it’s not a blanket condemnation of the kids. I wrote that I’m with your husband “to a point,” because I think “knock it off” isn’t enough, and correction should come with an explanation. I’m fond of “Hey, guys? This is a store, not a playground. Settle.” I’ve also been known to throw out a judicious, “That’s not what that’s meant for. Treat our stuff respectfully.” For me, the rule of thumb is always this: if my child is either involved or within earshot, I step in to stuff that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not trying to teach anyone else’s children, I’m trying to teach my own where the boundaries are.
Finally, let me add that I think you used the word “discipline” incorrectly: when your husband cries “knock it off!” in the middle of a group of rowdy kids, he’s attempting to stop behavior, but he’s not punishing OPK.
Unfortunately for all of us, neither are their parents.
Yours in peace and quiet,
Philip Van Munching is a New York Times bestselling author of advice books, and was a finalist last year in the Good Morning America nationwide “advice guru” search. Email your questions to email@example.com.