The Fine Art of Disciplining Other People's Kids

by Dr. Michele Borba

When I was growing up, if I misbehaved I was set straight by the parent in charge. If my friends misbehaved at my house there were held accountable by my mom and dad. But parenting has changed. These days parent are much more cautious about discipline kids who are not their -- probably because our society has become so litigious.

So how do you navigate those tricky issues of discipline the "other kids" when the child is in your care and you are in charge? My view: It's never intruding when you're protecting a child. You also don't want to offend the kid's parents, but when his behavior is dangerous or harmful to another child, you can't ignore it either.

Still, the right response depends on the circumstances. Here are a few tips to navigating this sometimes tricky parenting waters:

Get on board with the other parent. Anytime you are responsible for the care of another child always introduce yourself to the other kid's parent. You can exchange emergency information but also bring up discipline. "Are here any special rules you'd like your child to follow? What would you like me to do if they act up when they’re with me?" A brief chat will clue you into the parent's discipline views and also make things easier in case there is a problem.

Review ground rules. Lay down the law with your child before the friend arrives and even post those core house rules on your refrigerator. You or your child can quickly review those rules to any first-time guest.

Know your discipline limits. Most parents have no problem if you remind their kids of your house rules or enforce them. The problem is when you use certain types of punishment. A few general no-no's:

  • Don't spank another child. Ever.
  • Don't be judgmental. "You're so naughty. Don't push."
  • You may not use time-out.
  • Don't take away the other kid's personal possessions
  • Don't ground a child from a future event.

Don't discipline if the child's parent is present. Whatever the kid does, the parent is in charge. (You may take the kid by the hand and "return" him to the parent. You may review your rules in front of the parent: "We don’t throw balls in my house." But you can't discipline.

Make "safety" your core policy. Step in for any safety issue: Aggression or cruelty (hitting, biting, fighting, slapping, or exclusion. Risky behaviors like jumping off the roof, running with a sharp object, experimenting with alcohol, leaving your property, using technology with Internet access that access adult or inappropriate content must be addressed.

Use "cool" discipline and watch your terms. You do not have to tolerate any guest's acting inappropriately. Just remember that the child may later share with his parent how you discipline (and those stories can be embellished). For instance, best to not use "time-out" but you can still say, "Looks like you both need time to cool down. Why not sit here a bit until you're ready to play again."

Call the parent for severe infractions. If you've tried the cooler discipline approaches and the guest continues to misbehave, you could: