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Disciplining Someone Else’s Child

A controversy is raging about whether (or when and how) you should discipline someone else’s child.  This issue is divisive because it is more complex than meets the eye.  The factors involved include parents’ differing perspectives on:

1.  parenting (risk-averse or laissez-faire),
2.  what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a child,
3.  what methods of behavior redirection are acceptable, and
4.  whether a child is the sole responsibility of his/her parents or if it truly takes a village to raise a child.

Let’s address each of those factors individually.

1.  Some parents are risk averse.  They are uncomfortable taking chances with their kids, so they inform their kids of acceptable behavior and consistently reinforce those boundaries at each opportunity provided.  Their goal is to ensure that they raise kids who adhere to the expectations that the parents believe will help their kids survive and thrive.  On the other hand, some parents are laissez-faire.  They believe that there are times when kids need to learn by trial and error.  Laissez-faire parents’ goal is to make sure they raise kids who adhere to wise parental expectations . . . while also allowing their kids occasional free choice to do otherwise and experience the negative outcomes.  If a risk averse parent redirects the behavior of a child of a laissez-faire parent, the laissez-faire parent may see that as critical or controlling behavior on the part of the risk averse parent.

2.  Some parents think that kids should not disagree with their parents.  Some parents think that constructive disagreement is a healthy exchange of ideas.  Some parents allow their kids to put their feet on the coffee table; some parents find this behavior unacceptable.  On these and a host of other topics, parents should be free to establish the boundaries for their own kids.

3.  Some parents believe in calm, reasoned verbal redirections and time-outs.  Other parents believe that parental direction need not be explained to kids but merely followed by kids . . . thus, when errant behaviors occur, reasoning is not needed as consequences are the persuasive tools.  Still other parents support the use of spanking as an acceptable means of redirecting a child’s behavior.  If a parent spanks a child of parents who don’t believe in spanking, the non-spanking parents will see that spanking as a personal violation of their child.

4.  Some parents feel that they are solely responsible for their kids.  Other parents believe that it literally takes a village to raise a child.  At issue here is whether the collection of adults around the child share in the responsibility for shaping that child’s definition of what is ok and what is not ok.  If an it-takes-a-village parent redirects the behavior of a child of sole-responsibility parents, the sole-responsibility parents will likely feel that their parental rights have been ignored or stolen from them.  On the other hand, if an it-takes-a-village parent redirects the behavior of a child of another it-takes-a-village parent, the parent of the redirected child will likely experience gratitude for the help in keeping their child on the right path.

But what if a child is visiting your house, is in your car, or is otherwise in your care,  or if there is an urgent safety issue at hand?  If a child is in your care and is exhibiting behaviors that are unacceptable to you, it is best to calmly explain to that child what behaviors are expected while he/she is in your care.  You have a right to reinforce the boundaries that you have chosen for your home/car/etc., even when those boundaries are different than the boundaries that a non-family member experiences in his/her own environment.  In reinforcing your boundary, however, use the least redirective method possible to communicate what behavior you expect.  If there is an urgent safety issue at hand, the least redirective method may not suit your goal: instead, the quickest redirective method may be needed if the risk is one of imminent harm.

Whatever choices you make on these issues, you will not be able to win the approval of all parents.  This will remain a controversial subject with no clear-cut rights or wrongs.  As parents, we navigate the shades of gray daily.  We make our best decisions and then try to make our peace with the outcomes, whatever they may be.  So it is with redirecting the kids of others as well.  Make the best decision you can in the moment, knowing that you still may offend, and make your peace with your outcome because you did the best that you could.

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2 comments to Disciplining Someone Else’s Child

  • My wife recently passed away and I am required to work 45 hours a week, and every other month I have to leave the state for a week. I have been considering looking for a full time nannie. I am afraid of how my children will handle it.

  • Katie Poppins

    After working with children for more than 10 years, I don’t mind people being upset with me for telling their kids what to do. If I see something going on that is a danger, I will always say something. It is a very small risk for the benefit. When I have my own children I hope people will be looking out for mine like I watch out for others.

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