Disciplining children of other parents: is this OK

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Disciplining children of other parents is not uncommon.  As school begins again, kids attend sleepovers, birthday parties and other events where parents are left supervising multiple children. What do the parents do if one of these other kids get out of hand?  A similar discussion involves how a babysitter should behave when disciplining children of other parents and whether they should be spanking the child or not.  A heated topic between anti-spanker’s but even between pro-spanking parents disagree when it comes to whacking another parents child.  So as a parent, how should you approach a misbehaving child who is not your own?

Step one in properly disciplining another parents child is to have a conversation with the parents prior to the child coming over. A brief understanding between both of you over what is OK and what is not OK per the parents.  That can prevent a significant outrage by parents after-the-fact if they find out discipline was employed without having discussed the topic. Most often parents agree on options such as time-outs, rather than spanking when it comes to other kids but occasionally a parent will recommend spanking their child if the child is out of hand.  This leaves other parents uncomfortable though, so practically speaking what is a better approach?

A modified “time-out” is a great approach but I strongly disagree with how these time-outs are typically employed, especially when in the company of fellow peers.  To isolate a child in front of their peers and discipline them to the point where they stand out and feel ashamed is not healthy for their fragile ego and self-confidence at a young age. The harm far outweighs the benefits, especially when other options exist.  It is no coincidence that the vast majority of adult problems stem from childhood experiences, often as simple as something like this. You cannot underestimate the fragility of a child, especially one who is not your own, as you may have no idea about their ability to cope or what else may be going on in their life. You would hate to send any child over the edge with a “harmless” time-out” in front of peers.

Instead a distraction works well, even for older kids. Taking the child who is acting out, and possibly another child who is getting along with him, and having them come participate in another activity or to help the parents do another activity.  Not making a scene is the key. Quietly chatting with the child and not making a spectacle in front of the peers is key. Make it brief if possible. If the behavior is simply out of control than having the child be led into a different room to have a true time-out may be the last resort but it is not the first step I recommend.

I don’t think spanking another child is ever appropriate.  Even if the parents give you the “ok” to do so, the psychological damage it can inflict on a child is actually phenomenal.  Again their ego strength, fragile self-esteem and relatively underdeveloped coping skills can crumple with something as brief as a couple whacks by a stranger. A child has not developed the loving, trusting relationship they have with their parents which helps them know that the person hitting them is typically a caring loving person. (not always of course.)  However a stranger laying hands on a child can have unpredictable consequences and again it often depends on what else may be going on in the child’s life which is impossible to know as a babysitter. So I say better to be safe than sorry even when parents give you permission. You can let the parent know of the behavior, let them know you realize you could have spanked them but felt you controlled it as best you could without spanking but want to let the parents have that option when they get open. That way the child can still get the appropriate discipline but in a way with minimal lasting emotional consequences.

Kids are more fragile than people realize. Small ego blows at a young age are responsible for some of the biggest problems throughout an adult life.  Good to be aware of this as parents may be seeing more kids coming over to their house this year.

Michael Yasinski MD