Disciplining another person's child can make even the most seasoned parent cringe and retreat. On one hand, parents of toddlers and preschool-aged children often have their hands full with making sure their own child acts appropriately--no small feat for anyone. But if you're the one hosting a birthday party or playgroup social, then you're in charge of ALL aspects--including behavior. Like it or not, if a tot's actions are ruining the day or possibly causing harm to others and the child's parent isn't handling the situation, you're going to have to step up and take action.
Too often parents wait as long as possible before disciplinary action is taken in the hopes that the child settles down or the kid's parent intervenes. But waiting and hoping can actually allow the bad behavior to spiral even more out-of-control. Instead, do what most early educators recommend, and take swift and calm action as soon as a problem develops. If the child's parents or caregiver is present, ask them to take action. If they hesitate or the child starts up again, be prepared to step in. Consider removing the child from the situation and presenting him directly to the parent. Don't be surprised if tears or a tantrum results, but then again, that's not your problem. YOu have the safety and well-being of all kids to consider.
If the parent is not present, the situation becomes trickier. Friendships have been ruined and playgroups disbanded over hurt feelings and strong disagreements over the handling of behavioral situations. Families may have different expectations and rules surrounding acceptable behavior, and discipling a child can be sometimes be taken "personally" or even as criticism of how they are raising their child. However, not taking action could land you in hot water with the other parents.
With that said, the easiest (and safest) way to discipline another person's child is by either re-engaging them in a different activity or physically removing them from the situation and telling them why they can't continue to do what they were doing. Much of this depends on the action and age of the child. Avoiding labeling your disciplinary choice (i.e. a "timeout") to lessen chances of the other parents being offended. Instead, just say something like, "Jensen, I need you to come sit over here for a minute." Once removed from the situation, you can help the child calm down and then explain how you would like him to behave for the rest of the activity.
What behavior warrants immediate intervention?
Balancing between over-zealously stepping in and pretending the bad behavior isn't occurring can be a fine line. But these behaviors need to be stopped at once (by the parent, hopefully, but by any adult):
- Aggressive behavior that is hurting (or could hurt) another child, such as hitting, punching, biting, kicking, or using a toy as a weapon like a bat or any hard object
- Earth-shattering screeching or shrill screaming or such loud noises that it disrupts and distracts everyone in the room (and especially warranted in a public place such as a restaurant)
- Destructive behavior such as tearing things up, knocking things down, or ruining something
- Alarming behaviors such as hurting a family pet or wheeling a baby around who is in a stroller
- If you are the organizer (i.e. it is your child's birthday party), you should stop any behavior that you won't allow your own children to do.
What steps can you take to help minimize the opportunity for badly-behaving children to ruin a social event or function? Here are steps to take before the party gets started, and possible disciplinary approaches to consider ahead of time when you are calm and not stressed out!
- Use age-appropriate language to set simple rules with toddlers before activities begin. Child care providers and early educators alike that having kids calmly start an event with a "circle time" or something similar while you cheerily talk about the events at hand and expectations can at least let youngsters know they are expected to behave. If at all possible, enlist the help of other parents to assist, hear and observe so that they too know your expectations. Don't be stern or lecturing; you know how to do it in a positive and upbeat fashion, all the while talk about the fun things that are coming.
- Depending on the age of the children, consider discussing that these activities require kids to keep their hands to themselves and to stay seated, with a consequence of being removed from the activity if they can't manage themselves. Again, this is just as much for the parents as it is for the kids.
- If the activity is a playgroup, parents should set rules and agree to appropriate actions if a child gets out-of-control. (By the way, this can happen occasionally to the very best-behaved kids...including yours!) Parents should either supervise their own kid or have a cell phone and be available to retrieve their youngster if problems arise.
- If hosting a party, encourage parents to stay. If they do plan to leave, be sure to get their cell phone number before they depart as a "just in case" measure. If you have too many kids to adequately supervise and manage without a lot of help, the truth is, you've probably invited too many kids for the age group at hand anyway. While it's too late if you've already sent the invites, remember that a smaller group will most likely be more fun and memorable overall.
- Keep your cool when a child misbehaves. Remember that kids will be kids, and that doesn't always include the very best of behaviors. Besides, next time it could be YOUR kid behaving badly.