The Trouble with Other People’s Kids

Dear Mr. Dad: Is it ever appropriate to discipline other people’s children? My 7-year-old daughter often invites one of her classmates to our home. I don’t mind, but this girl is a terror and does things (like jumping on furniture) that my child is not allowed to. I spoke to her mom about it but she just laughed and said, “Allie is a very lively girl.” How can I handle this situation without depriving my daughter of her friend’s company?

A: There’s a difference between disciplining children while their parents are present, and a situation like yours, when a child is dropped off at your house and left in your care.

Generally speaking, if a parent is present, it is up to him or her to ensure that their children are not misbehaving—and to discipline them if and when necessary. There are, of course, some exceptions. Say another child is acting aggressively at a playground and pushing yours off the swings or slide. In an ideal world, the offending kid’s parent would immediately react and remove the child from the playground. But what if the parent is ignoring the child’s behavior? At that point,, you certainly have the right (and, in my view, the responsibility) to step in and do what you need to do (without hurting the other child, of course), to protect your daughter from harm.

The same would apply if a child was doing something to harm another kid—not yours—at the park or anywhere else. When someone is in danger of harming themselves or anyone else, as a responsible adult, you must step in. Think how bad you’d feel if something tragic were to happen that you know you could have prevented.

It’s a pity that Allie’s mom laughs off her daughter’s behavior, missing the opportunity to teach her child some basic lessons in courtesy and respect. I’m betting that little Allie has very lenient (if any) rules at home, and hasn’t learned how to behave in other people’s homes. At seven, though, she should certainly know what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

It goes without saying that in your home, Allie should follow your rules. (It’d be the same with adult visitors: If you have a non-smoking household, you have every right to demand that your guests either respect your rules or leave.)

The next time Allie (or another child) comes for a play date, be very clear about what the rules are. Of course, you don’t want to be overly strict (after all, she’s there to have fun), but the children’s safety and your comfort should be your priority. It’s absolutely reasonable to expect that visitors—whether they’re kids, adults, or pets—not jump on your furniture, yell, make a mess (without cleaning up afterwards), or turn on the TV without asking first.

If Allie keeps breaking the rules, you have every right to discipline her by telling her that this kind of behavior is not acceptable in your home, and she has to stop. Be calm but firm. But never shout at someone else’s child. You might also want to include your daughter in the warning if she’s involved in the activity too.

If you ‘re consistent in reminding Allie what the rules are, chances are she’ll start to follow them, even if they’re different from what she’s allowed to do in her own home. Of course, if she continues to misbehave—especially if she’s endangering or harming your child, or damaging your belonging—it might just be time for your daughter to find some other, better-behaved playmates.