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Is It Okay to Discipline Other People’s Kids?

April 13th, 2015     By Bridget Barnes, Director Common Sense Parenting, Mother of two

Discipline, Meltdown, Respect, Toddler

The Breakfast Club .  Not long ago, I was in a situation when I had to ask myself, “Is it okay to discipline other people’s children?” We were on vacation, staying at a hotel that provided a complimentary breakfast. One morning, I went down to take advantage of this free perk. If I’d known what was going to happen, I might have stayed in bed. The restaurant was crowded with people that morning. I decided to order a meal from the menu since the buffet seem picked over and uninviting. Not long after I was seated, I heard a familiar sound: a young child whining. At first, like most of the people in the restaurant, I tried to ignore it. I assumed the child’s parent would soon intervene. But that didn’t happen. The whining turned into crying, and the crying turned into screaming. This went on for quite a while. Finally, a lady who was sitting near the emotional little boy and his father leaned over and asked the dad, “Is there anything I can do?” The father completely ignored her, and continued eating and reading his paper. His son, on the other hand, looked straight at her and screamed all the louder, driving the poor woman away from their table and her own.

So what is the answer to that uncomfortable question we’ve all asked ourselves: “ Is it okay to discipline other people’s kids?”  The answer is “Yes,” but only if you know when you should do it, how you should intervene and what you should say. Here are a few do’s and don’ts for each area:

  • If the parent is around, it is okay to guide the child back to him or her and let the parent handle the discipline. For example, if you are at a friend’s house and her child does something naughty, you can say, “ Let’s find your mom or dad…” in a calm voice tone while leading the child in the direction of a parent. Before the parent speaks, let him or her know the child has something to share. You can start the conversation by saying, “ Johnny was having trouble with my ‘No’ answer. He wants to tell you what help he needs from you so he can calm down and say okay to me.”
  • If a child is directing an inappropriate behavior toward you that is repeated, severe or harmful, and there doesn’t appear to be a parent around, you may want to put on your own parenting cap. (If you don’t know the child, it’s best NOT to remove him or her from the area.)  Before you start, notify an employee or some other authority figure, and, if possible, ask bystanders to help find the parent, witness the interaction and provide support for your response. This really won’t take as long as it sounds, but dealing with an irate parent and a vengeful child without the support of others might. When the child’s parent returns, explain what happened and why you felt the need to intervene. Do not correct or berate the parent, and if he or she seems resistant or too angry to listen to you, share your concerns with the authority figure.

If find yourself in a situation where you must provide guidance to a child who is doing something that is socially, morally or legally wrong and/or something that is severe, repeated or harmful to the child or others:

  • Make sure you are calm enough to attend to the matter. Test your calm meter by counting slowly or singing your favorite song to yourself for a few seconds.
  • Try not to act alone. Ask bystanders to monitor your behavior and the child’s behavior. Alert any immediate authorities (e.g., store employees) if a parent does not appear when you or the child calls for him or her.
  • Use a passive voice tone that is firm but matter of fact. Children are more likely to respond to an adult who is calm and confident, rather than someone who seems threatening.
  • Keep an arm’s length away from the child. Children may cry or get upset when they are being corrected, especially if they aren’t used to it and a stranger is doing it. Stand just close enough so the child can hear you but far enough away so he or she can’t hit, kick or spit on you.

In a situation where a parent isn’t nearby and the child’s behavior is severe, repeated and harmful, correct the child with C.A.R.E. (Communicate clearly, Ask to help, Recruit support and Empower them).

  • Communicate clearly. Briefly describe the child’s behavior. Do not label the child or try to perceive his or her feelings with vague statements like, “You are being mean” or “I can see you are really sad.” Instead, say something specific like, “You are yelling and screaming. Try to take a few deep breaths to calm down. Don’t worry. We will get your parent to help you.”
  • Ask to help. Calmly and politely ask the child if you can help him or her. If the child says “No,” and the behavior is severe, repeated or harmful, get help from others or authorities.
  • Recruit support.  Ask others to help by monitoring the situation, finding the child’s parent or the authorities, encouraging the child or joining you to help the child (again, do not label or berate a child or a parent).
  • Empower them.  Once the parent is present, allow him or her to discipline the child. Parents can do a good job when they feel like they’re being supported and not judged. You also can empower the child by offering him or her options for correcting the behavior. Give the child a calm, uncomplicated way to resolve the situation.

The breakfast club continued…

…The lady was practically in tears as she gathered her belongings and started to leave the restaurant. I stopped her as she passed my table and tried to console her. We asked the waitress for a warm washcloth and a small glass of water, and the waitress, the woman and I approached the little boy’s father again. I said, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to wipe your son’s face to help him calm down. Is that okay with you?” The father looked up from his paper and said he would take care of his child. At that point, the three of us returned to our own activities.  

It was unfortunate that this father didn’t want our help. But not every parent will respond this way; in fact, some will appreciate the fact that you were concerned enough about their child’s safety and welfare to step in and ask to help.  


In the “breakfast club” example, do you think we did the right thing? Do parents have the right to do nothing when their children are unruly? Do the rest of us just have to grin and bear it?  Send us your experiences, comments and questions.

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