The Littlest Bullies: How (And When) To Discipline Other People’s Children

One day at the park, a little boy pulled my daughter’s hair – hard.  When she started crying, he laughed.  His nanny told him to apologize, but he refused.  She threatened to take him home, but then didn’t.  A few minutes later, he pulled my daughter’s hair again, so hard that I had to bend over him and pry his hands off her head.

That time, I didn’t wait for his nanny to reprimand him.  I got down on his level and told him sternly, “Do not pull her hair!  Do you understand?  It’s unacceptable.”  The nanny muttered half-heartedly, “He’s never done this before,” but I ignored her.  She was a lost cause.  I moved my kids away from that boy… and I kept my eye on him.

He found another kid – a crawling 10-month-old – and pulled his hair so hard he screamed.  Then he did it to another kid.  And another.  It happened at least five times that I witnessed personally over the next 20 minutes.  He never apologized and he never got punished.

The other day in my kids’ art class, a little boy shoved my son so hard he fell down.  It was unprovoked and intentional, and he did it with a smile on his face.  His mother ignored it.  A minute later, he pushed Sutton just as hard.  His mom looked the other way, so I got down in his face and said, “No pushing!”

After that, he left my kids alone, but he kept pushing the other children.  He eventually became fixated on one little girl.  He pushed her over and over, knocked her down so many times that I lost count, but it was at least 10.  His mom meekly muttered, “Don’t push” a couple of times and told the teacher something annoyingly familiar: “He’s never done this before.”

What else did these two situations have in common?  The caretakers did nothing.

I’m not talking about the bad kids’ caretakers.  Of course they weren’t doing anything.  That’s why their kids were monsters.  But the victim’s parents didn’t do anything either.  They never addressed the offending kids or their guardians, even as their own kids were getting the crap beaten out of them.

I want to say something to those parents:

Sometimes, you have to lay some smack down with other people’s kids.

I know disciplining your own kids is hard enough, but this is different.  You’re not trying to teach the bad kid how to behave.  That’ll never work, because his parents clearly won’t follow through.  When you discipline someone else’s bad kid, you’re doing it for your own kids – to protect them and to make sure they know that you can’t get away with that kind of behavior.  They should see that the standards you hold them to apply to other kids, even if those kids’ parents don’t always enforce them.

Why do parents sit idly by while their kids get harassed?  I think most of us are just too nice and conflict-averse to question anyone else’s disciplinary practices (or lack thereof).  Well, I’m conflict-averse, too, but if your kid pushes my kid, he’s the one who initiated the conflict.  I’m just stepping in to make sure it’s resolved to my satisfaction.

If there’s one thing parenthood has taught me, it’s that I can be a lot braver on my kids’ behalf than I would ever be on my own.

Yes, this begs the question: Don’t I feel like a bully for intimidating someone 1/3 my size?

You bet, and it’s awesome.  I can see why these kids enjoy it so much, and it’s high time they had a taste of their own medicine.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not an authority on anything, just an overly opinionated man who feels extremely lucky to be a parent and who’s taking full advantage of the meager power this role provides him.  In other words, feel free to ignore my advice.  But if you’re ever in a situation where some out-of-control hellion is tormenting your child, here’s how I would handle it:

Strike One.  You just saw some kid attack your child – or maybe your kid came to you crying and saying something happened, but you’re not 100% sure what really went down.  OK, fine.  Comfort your kid and tell him that the offending behavior is wrong.  Leave it at that.  Give everyone the benefit of the doubt, because everyone’s kids misbehave sometimes.  But from that moment on, watch the other kid closely.

Strike Two.  Now you know exactly what happened, because you had your eye on the bad kid, and you saw him do it.  Now, your focus shifts to his caregiver.  Make sure she or he knows what’s going on without confronting them directly.  Again, give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they didn’t see it happen and they just need your cue to step in and discipline the kid.

Here’s what you do: comfort your kid again, but do it louder.  First, validate your own kid: “Yes, he pushed you.  I saw it.  That was not acceptable.”  Make sure the bad kid and his guardian hear you.  Give the guardian a chance discipline her kid, and if she’s any kind of parent, she’ll be embarrassed and she’ll apologize profusely.

Now you’re watching the kid and the guardian very closely.

Strike Three.  By now, either the guardian has reprimanded the kid appropriately or he hasn’t.  But the kid did it again.  This is where you address the kid directly.  Act as if he were your child.  Be firm, but don’t shout.  “Don’t hit!  Do you understand?  Say you’re sorry.”  The kid will probably be shocked, because no one’s ever talked to him that way before.  You may even make him cry.  (Good!  That’s a sign that he never hears “no”, and you got to be the one to introduce him.  Bravo.)

At this point, don’t make any excuses for the other parent.  Maybe they weren’t paying attention and missed the behavior yet again.  Well, too bad.  They know there’s an issue, so they should be watching their kid closely.  If they’re not, you have every right to handle the situation yourself.

Strike Four.  Tell the other parent to leave.  Their kid is out of control and needs to be removed from the situation.  If you’re at a place of business like an indoor playroom, speak to the manager.

If the other parent refuses to leave and the manager does nothing, then you leave.  Tell your children clearly, “I’m sorry we have to go.  You haven’t done anything wrong, but that other kid is out of control, and I don’t want you around him.”  Don’t wait for a strike five.

I know in baseball, you only get three strikes, but what can I say?  I’m nice.

Does that sound harsh?  It shouldn’t, because here’s how I think you should handle it if your kid is the aggressor:

Strike One.  Let’s say that you didn’t witness the action first-hand, but your kid is standing over some other kid who’s crying and all evidence suggests your kid just did something bad.  Ask your kid what happened, and whether they confess or not, remind them, without directly accusing them, “It’s not OK to hit or push.”  Then, keep your eye on your kid.

Strike Two.  Now you know what your kid is up to, because you were watching your kid closely.  It’s your job to take control of the situation.  Pull your kid away.  Tell him you saw what he did, and it was wrong.  Make him apologize to the other kid.  Then, apologize to the other parent yourself.  Don’t make excuses, don’t assure them that your kid never does that sort of thing.  Everybody’s kid does bad things sometimes.  Your actions at this point will do a lot more to vouch for your parenting than your excuses.

Strike Three.  Repeat step two, but more firmly.  Remove your kid from the area for a serious talk.  If he seems contrite, let him know he only has one more chance.  If he can’t behave himself, you’re going to leave.  (If your kid is uncooperative, don’t even give him another chance.  Just leave.  You know when your kid is out of control, so react appropriately.)

Strike Four.  Leave.  Make sure you apologize to the other parent(s) on the way out.  Let your child know that he’s behaving inappropriately and that’s why you have to go.

Maybe I’m being overly lenient letting my kid get to four strikes, but sometimes with twins, that’s only fair.  I don’t want to make both of my kids leave if only one of them is misbehaving, so I’m going to do all I can to make the situation right before I punish both kids for the actions of one.

Then again, I’ve never actually gotten past strike two with my kids.  As I said, I’m no expert, but I assume that means I’m doing something right.

One final note: don’t be scared of the other parents.  Chances are, if they’re afraid of their own kid, they’ll be even more afraid of you.  I’m a short, scrawny little weasel.  99% of the other parents out there could take me down in a heartbeat.  But no one’s ever roughed me up for talking smack to their kid.  On the few situations when I’ve actually done it, the other parents have been totally speechless.

And witnessing that is the best part of all.

What do you think?  Do you have a better way of dealing with situations like this?  Let me know in the comments.

66 comments on “The Littlest Bullies: How (And When) To Discipline Other People’s Children

  1. I have taken my little cousin to outings (i nannied him for a while) and I really get my ground up when parents assume their kids don’t do bad things.
    I remember asking the parent to discipline him and she wouldn’t so I sat next to her and when her little boy kicked mine AGAIN I made sure she saw it… her response? NOTHING!
    I ended up showing her the lump he had made (a bruise later formed) and said that I would make sure she was no longer welcome to the indoor park. It was only when I started speaking the manager of the place that she actually done something!
    Oh its great to hear this normalcy!

    • Wow, amazing how clueless some parents are. I admit for a while I was convinced I was going to have the first kids ever who never misbehaved. I’ve since come down to reality. It’s actually good for them to lash out and test their boundaries, but it does make a parent’s job harder. Sad that some people just aren’t up to the job.

  2. I have never had problem getting in anyone’s face…big or small, if the situation calls for it. I think you are doing the right thing, and feel free to say your “two cents” to the Mommies & nannies who are oblivious.

    It interesting now, I witness kids that are in their teens & early 20’s that still have no boundaries. I’m the “Mean Mom” of my children’s friends…but for some odd reason they like me and like hang around our house all the time.

    My days in Brooklyn’s parks & playgrounds had me battling bullies of all genders…..There is a time where you need to see what your child will respond with to the bully tactics as well. I raised good, kind, & polite son and daughter……but they both can hold their own any time..any where..any place….
    Take care, CW

    • It doesn’t surprise me that the strict mom was also the cool mom. Kids may not like getting punished, but eventually they realize that discipline equals love. I’m banking on that as my kids get older, too.

      The closest thing I can compare it to myself is work. I hate having bosses who don’t give me feedback on my work, especially when I hear through other channels that they’re dissatisfied. I’d rather get some constructive criticism once in a while, because at least then I know where I stand.

      I’m sure there are plenty of female bullies out there. I used the male pronoun throughout this post just because I haven’t seen any yet and because it read less confusing that way.

      Glad to hear your kids turned out OK!

  3. I don’t wait for strikes. If I see your child hurt mine (or mine hurt yours) I will immediately speak up. With the gentle, non-violent language I use with my own kids I’ll tell them an age appropriate outline of relevant expectations. “Becoming the Parent Your Want to Be” style. I assume them to be good kids making kid fueled decisions and I talk to them with the same respect I would want other parents to talk to my kids. That’s usually enough, only a few times did I need to speak more sternly, but in those cases the caregiver was essentially not available and unaware that her child was being spoken sternly to, so it was never an issue. Usually repeat offenders want to engage others, but haven’t learned how to positively engage. If I think that’s the case, showing them how to positively engage my child in play is usually quite helpful.

    My kids are all older and past this stage now. Now the offenses are much more covert, but I notice that my kids have no problem speaking up for themselves and respectfully calling their friends out on unfriendly choices when they are made. Don’t consider it just protecting your kids, consider it also about teaching them to stand up for themselves. An investment for their pre-teen and teen years 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. You make a great point about kids wanting to engage but not knowing how. I actually think that’s what was happening in the second scenario I recounted (the pushing) – and possibly in the hair-pulling as well. Maybe next time, I will try spinning it into a positive interaction and see what happens. 🙂

  4. I’d say thats precisely right. I have fortunately never been in the situation of having my kid bullied, and while he isn’t a bully himself he can be a bit intense at times (he loves to run full on at kids and hug them, some are ok with this some are not) I let the other kids face tell me if I need to step in or not, if its a sheepish smile and a return hug all is ok, if its a look or horror and trying to push my kid off of them, well then its time for me to intervene.

    • I’m sorry Maria but it’s great to hear my little boy isn’t the only one who does this, he’s always so excited to see other kid’s! Like you I generally watch the one’s on the receiving end and step in when necessary.

      Great post as always, I have no problem telling other peoples kid’s off whether I know them or not, I also loudly tell Dylan that whatever just happened to him was not ok if I see the other adult just watching their child without intervening.

      I’ve only had to leave an indoor play centre once and complained to the staff but that was about the adults themselves not their kid’s…..

      P.s I would never have a problem with someone reminding Dylan not to push if I had missed him doing something.

      • I agree with you. If I don’t see my kid hit or push, I’d be grateful that another parent pointed it out to me. We can’t catch every bad thing that our kids do (especially those of us with more than one kid to watch at the same time), so I’d hate for the little monkeys to think they got away with something just because Daddy wasn’t watching. I’m still trying to grow those eyes in the back of my head. 🙂

    • I didn’t mention it in the post, but the pushing kid was also a hugger. A few times instead of pushing, he just grabbed kids tightly or held their hands. It should seem sweet but in his case it was very aggressive. That’s why I think the previous commenter was right that he was just trying to engage and wasn’t sure how. Not that that’s what your son is doing. Personally, I think if he did that to my daughter, they’d be instant BFFs. If he did it to my son, I’m not sure how he’d react.

      I try to encourage my kids to say hello to other kids, tell them their name and ask the other kid’s name. They’re often too shy to do it (and usually the other kids are too shy to reply), but I guess it at least models the behavior I want them to have.

  5. Like Maria, I have fortunately never encountered a bully that wasn’t reprimanded by their caretaker for misbehaving. I do however wholeheartedly agree with you. Children need to learn boundaries and respect for others, and if their own guardian is not able or willing to provide this lesson sometimes you have to do it yourself.

    I actually called a boy last year for repeatedly throwing stones at the ducks in our pond while his father was watching. He was old enough to know that it is not nice to be cruel to animals but his father’s reaction explained why he still did it. The excuse? “But he’s just a child.” My reaction: “Well, that’s the best time to teach him not to be cruel to animals.”

    Great post and, as always, well written.

    • Good for you for telling the kid not to throw stones at the ducks. I vaguely recall reprimanding a kid once for doing something bad that didn’t directly affect a kid – maybe it was littering or something. That’s even trickier because you can’t even hide behind the “he was hurting my kid” excuse. If the parent takes offense, you basically have to admit, “Your kid has bad manners.” Oh well, if no one at home is teaching him not to be cruel to animals, then I’m glad he got it from you. 🙂

  6. We frequently go to the park, and if my kids are the instigators I stop it immediately and they must apologize. Repeat behaviours are time to go home. Hitting and pushing is not acceptable in my home, cutting in line or being bossy get more chances for reconciliation because those are learning experiences.
    At the park I have said many times to other children “Hitting/pushing/biting/throwing sand/taking toys/pulling hair is not acceptable.” If the child repeats the behaviour I tell my children not to play with them because they are a rude child.
    Last week we were at an indoor playplace and Ally (3 years old) came over to me and told me that another child pushed her. I didn’t see the incident but we’re trying to encourage her to stand up for herself (verbally of course), so I asked her to tell the child “Do not push me, pushing is rude.” I found that it helped her enormously to stand up for herself. The pusher’s mom overheard Ally stand up for herself and then talked to her own child about proper behaviour with other kids. I felt like a winner.

    • That’s fantastic! Reading these responses has made me realize that maybe I’m missing out on an opportunity to give my kids some empowerment. Especially on a first or second offense, it probably is better to teach the kid to stand up for themselves. If it escalates to something more serious, then maybe it’s OK that the lesson becomes, “Daddy’s got your back.”

      • It’s also hard to know when and in what situations your child can stand up for themselves. I’d never ask my 1 (almost 2) year old to stand up for herself, she’s in no way ready for that. Also, if something more serious happened to my 3 year old I’d intervene immediately. Let’s say a child threatened her or something, Mommy is in there like lightning then!

      • Ally’s so protective of her little sister. Before Kira even turned one Ally would introduce her at the park to other kids as “Kira, my sister. You better be nice to her.” Hahaha!

  7. I know you say you’re no authority, but your kids are older than mine (and you have two) so that makes you an expert in my book. I found this post so valuable, I’m going to share it with my mommy & me group. We’re all starting to experience some aggression at the park and want to do the right thing but sometimes don’t know how, esp when it comes to addressing someone else’s kid. Thanks!

    • Glad to hear it! I hope it provokes some good discussion. The hair-pulling happened at a park in LA, so that kid is still at large in your neighborhood! Be on the lookout! 🙂

  8. I’m not a parent, but the thought of a caretaker letting their kid push other children or pull hair is crazy to me. If they don’t make their kid knock it off, they should expect other parents to step in.

  9. I’m an educator and a parent and, as always, I’m grateful for parents like you were are trying to be a good parent, and not your children’s good friend. You will become friends later on and you will want to be their friends because they will be better people for you holding the line for them.

  10. Thankfully I’ve yet to witness my little toddler get pushed by anyone else, but I’m like you—stand back because I will school that other kid in a second. I’ve seen kids being rude to mine; for instance, a kid will just sort of shove his way past my toddler as he runs or climbs a ladder, and I tell the kid, “You can say ‘excuse me’.”

    That said, I also try to balance it with a bit of hands-off, let-my-kid-try-to-handle-this parenting, too. I don’t want to be the savior every time he gets into a scuffle, and he needs to know how to hold his own ground. Usually when he’s holding on to something and another kid takes it from him, I tell him right away, “Did you want that ball? You can take it back if you want that ball.” I want him to learn how to stand up for what’s important to him (civilly, of course).

    But yes I have no qualms about letting another kid know that what he did is inappropriate, especially if it’s towards my kid. I cannot imagine just letting my kid get pushed around. He needs to know that that behavior is unacceptable, and that it should be addressed instead of just taking it.

    • Good points. If it’s nonviolent, I try not to step in. Sometimes, what looks bad to me is something the kids sort out easily on their own. If nobody gets upset, then no harm was done. I think it sends the wrong message for me to step in and say, “It’s your turn! Don’t let him cut in front of you!”, for example, if my kid wasn’t bothered by it. Better to let them get thick-skinned and easy-going than encourage them to develop a hair-trigger temper.

  11. i’ve been following your blog for a little while and i REALLY liked this piece. i think you’re spot on with your advice. i wrote a sort of ‘how to fight back’ piece too, but it may be more for adults:

    anyhoo, great stuff. enjoyed reading it. i don’t even have kids and if i see one acting like a roaring a-hole, i’m apt to tell them and their parents to knock it off. i have no qualms. nice to meet another kindred fighting soul. 😉 sweet mother

  12. Love this post! Unfortunately, it’s my friend’s kid who ends up drop kicking, pushing or smacking other kids. He’s been told otherwise, but we swear, he has a mind of his own. It’s really tough teaching aggression is not an answer, especially at his age where words haven’t been developed into verbal speech. But I KNOW we would have totally appreciated other adults telling him to behave because well, only THEN would he actually learn (often, as you said, they don’t listen to their own parents).

    In developmental psychology, I learned that it is parents and society that teaches social rules. Hence, your blog is totally correct. It takes a village to raise a child and we must do our part to ensure that we are teaching good behavior now (or else end up rearing workplace bullies). And being direct is much better than some parents who simply console their child for being a victim, talk badly behind the bully’s back, but not actually assertively address the behavior. It only teaches passive aggression, and all know how effective that is.

    Thank you for your post! I hope all parents read this. 😀


    • Yeah, it’s so easy to pass passive-aggressiveness on to kids, since it’s so much of how we interact with other adults, without even realizing it. Confrontation is always better, IMO.

      The good news is your friend’s kid isn’t your responsibility, but I have to believe if the non-aggression message isn’t getting through, then his parents should probably try a different approach. I know lots of little boys are naturally aggressive and it’s not easy to reprogram them, but if it’s your kid, you just have to stick it out no matter how long it takes.

      Thanks as always for sharing!

      • Your reflections totally represent what many others are thinking, and I completely agree. I’m more like the ‘aunt’ who helps to kindly steer him in the right direction.

        I think parents should get HUGE Awards for all the effort it takes, 24/7 to create responsible citizens. Forget Grammys, there should be Mammys for Mama(n)s who dedicate their lives to their children. 😀

  13. I wish you were around when my younger brother was at his bully stage! I would have LOVED to see the look on my step-mother’s face if someone had corrected her child. I was always yelled at when I disciplined my little brother, though I was 7 years older than him, and knew if we didn’t discipline him then he’d turn out to be a menace. And sure enough, he’s a menace! I love your strategy and advice. I’ll keep it all in mind for when I have kids of my own!

  14. we see this at the museum where I volunteer- not bullying but bad behavior that parents/caregivers ignore- and will even tell us we are wrong if we ask the kid to stop spitting, not to touch something, not to run – these kids are older but I think parents who ignore behavior when kids are little continue to do so.

  15. I think this is absolutely wonderful. I wish more parents were able to stand up to kids/parents of kids who hurt their children. I don’t have kids myself, but I have younger siblings. Luckily I’ve never had to deal with this situation with them being hurt or hurting others, but I’ve witnessed it with other children. Rarely does anyone (parent of the victim or the bully) do anything. Thank you so much for voicing your opinion on this!

    • Thanks, Nicky. I understand why people (including me) have a hard time standing up to bullies who are their own size, but when they’re your kids’ size, what are you afraid of? I can totally take down a 3-year-old if I have to, so he’d better not mess with my kids! 🙂

  16. Fortunately I haven’t had to deal with bullying from other kids with my 14-month old daughter, yet. I have been the parent of the kid who has made the other kids cry, however. Fortunately, the parents were friends of mine and she didn’t try to make them cry. I dread the thought that she’d maliciously push or hit another kid later on, unless of course it’s a boy (a girl’s gotta stand up for herself!). Good for you for standing up (or is it down?) to misbehaving kids, Jerry! And for sharing what I think is a great way to go about doing it!

    • Thanks, Nick! I think every kid goes through a hitting, pushing or biting phase (or all three), so that’s why I give every kid and parent the benefit of the doubt – and a couple of strikes against them. As long as you react appropriately when your daughter makes your friends’ kid cry, I’m sure she’ll get the message.

  17. YES! We are just now getting to the stage where this is coming into play and it takes EVERYTHING in me to not go all Hulk on the bratty kid. I witnessed a kid in my son’s daycare come up and start slapping my son. My little boy was completely shocked by it because he doesn’t hit. So, he stood there and took it. I told the teacher in his class (I was waiting on a form from them) and she said “don’t hit”. It kept happening, so I went over, pulled my son back and said (to the other kid), “we don’t hit” in a very firm voice. The kid just walked off and started smacking another kid. It’s just unreal.

    That’s the night we decided to enroll him in karate. I’ll never teach him to hit first, but if someone hits him, I want him to be able to end them.

    I’ve never felt so much anger in my life. No one smacks baby in the corner.

    • Ha – love your last line! That’s really offensive that the day care teacher didn’t handle the situation better. It makes you wonder what goes on there when there ISN’T a visiting parent in the room…

  18. I think this is a great blog post – it takes a village to raise a child. I want to caution you, though. Consider experimenting not just with discipline but also with redemption…

    It’s easy for adults to overinterpret the intentions of a young child from the “bad” behavior. When that happens, an opportunity to turn the situation into something positive is lost. I’m not bringing this up to be touchy feely – I’m a nice person but can be a real battle-axe not afraid of making the other PARENTS cry if I have to – this is about the power of parents to use confidence and direction to turn what seems to be insurmountable conflict into something positive for everyone, on a dime. It’s amazing how you can turn what seems like a mean little brat into a nice kid and one of the group in a heartbeat. It’s hugely empowering, and better for the kids.

    Before about age 5, these kids aren’t thinking “I’m going to hurt that other little girl,” or “I’m going to misbehave to get attention” or even “if I call that boy a name, he’ll hurt inside.” A Lord-of-the-Flies view of children’s nature based on certain behavior is more self-fullfilling prophesy than fact. I’m surprised at how often the misbehavior is simply instinct to get a caregiver’s attention or just to find a way to introduce themselves and to play with some other kids or simply imitating an older sibling. Sometimes it’s just exploration — kids experiment with the reactions of others just as they might experiment with sand.

    You do need to be firm and discipline (teach) the other child when they misbehave, absolutely. And yes, it’s as much for the benefit of your child so that he or she knows that they are worth protecting and that they don’t deserve to be hurt or have their toys taken away by someone else, but I’m not as on board with pegging the other child as a miscreant and forming your whole strategy around that. Don’t get me wrong, when the kids are older, it’s a different story. But…

    I want to share a two stories.

    Before I had children myself, my brother brought his two young kids with him one summer for a family reunion. My other siblings were also not yet married with kids, so we all doted on our little niece and nephew. We sat on the floor with them and played Legos. We took them fishing. We went to the beach and made sand sculptures. I had just finished a giant sand snail for my nephew, and a kid about my nephew’s age came running up and kicked it into oblivion, bringing my nephew to tears. Not having kids myself then, I was full of umbrage and I’m not going to tell you what I was thinking about doing, but my sister-in-law (an elementary school teacher) reacted in a really surprising (to me) way. Instead of yelling at the boy or ignoring him or what he did, she very firmly but nicely told him to stop — and then she invited him (in a polite, authoritative but not overly solicitous way) to join us. I was astonished and kept the little brat at arm’s length (and after my sister-in-law’s example, my opinion of him to myself). But he settled right down and played calmly and quietly, and never did anything “bad” after that. We all continued to make castles and sculptures, and finally warmed up and included the kid more, too.

    The boy’s parents were sitting in beach chairs several yards away, sunning themselves. After awhile, they got up to leave, and called to their son, several times, then getting annoyed and insisting it was time for him to leave. Just before he left, the boy told my sister-in-law, referring to all of us and almost in tears, “I wish MY parents would play with me like this, too.” And then he ran off. Wow.

    Years later, when I became a parent, I took my sister-in-law’s example, and found that if I just took charge of the situation appropriately and confidently, little kids always accepted my authority, and bad-behavior situations could be turned on a dime into something positive. (This power remains longer than you would think, but by about 5th or 6th grade, it’s different.)

    I remember a time of at the library when a little boy ran up to my child and a friend, and with a mischievous gleam in his eye, busted up their Lego creation. The “bad” boy’s mom was sitting a table away with her older daughter and did nothing. I literally took the boy’s hand and looked him in the eye and told him to stop and drop the Legos, that the other kids were using them. That was my opportunity to take charge of the situation, mediate, make sure the wronged parties were set right — all of the discipline can happen very quickly. I was then able to steer the situation firmly to how to share and play well together, and once again, the little interloper played nicely and was at the point of tears when he had to leave. I mean, when the situation changed, the “bad” kid’s whole face and demeanor changed. It was weird with the kid’s mom right there, but I eventually realized the mom hadn’t even noticed what was going on, and he was probably trying to get her attention – she was engrossed in helping the older child with her homework. But after I intervened, I didn’t see any evidence of the little brat who confronted us at the start.

    I have seen this over and over again. I could fill a book with examples. Yet every time this happened, I have been caught by surprise. It’s like I expect the recalcitrance of adulthood — but children aren’t just little adults. And we adults need to react differently to their behavior than we would to the same behavior in adults or even older children. If nothing else, it’s amazing to be see a child and what first seems like a conflict transformed like that in the blink of an eye.

    The other great thing about handling things this way is that eventually your children start to do the same thing. I can remember some older boys coming to the park and making fun of the younger kids for playing make-believe trains — and the youngest of the group, obviously a younger sibling, at first following in their suit. My child’s friend couldn’t handle it and went off by himself at first. My child found a way to invite the “bad” kid who had been making fun of their play to play too. It turned out it was the older kids’ influence, and the younger kid wanted DESPERATELY to play with them — and again, I witnessed the same transformation, and reluctance to leave.

    This is when it’s really helpful to be a part of a parenting group: everyone learns to get comfortable taking some responsibility for all the kids, you know the other parents will mediate on your child’s behalf as well, and you know they expect you will intervene if their child is doing something wrong. This comfort then extends to strangers on the playground.

    As for parents who need to discipline their own kids: the absolute worse thing anyone can do is threaten a consequence and then not follow through. Don’t threaten something unless you are absolutely going to go through with it. Always. So never threaten something you don’t want to do! But whether threatening to take away something will work or not depends on the child’s age.

    I have one more thing to share that I learned over the years, and it works like magic. If you threaten a consequence, don’t say “IF you do/don’t do this, THEN [consequence].” You can ask kids if they understand, you can quiz them about the consequence and what they are/aren’t supposed to do, and they’ll seem to understand, but somehow, it just doesn’t work consistently. BUT, if you instead say, “DO YOU WANT [the privilege, like staying at the park]?” Wait for the child’s answer. (If it’s no, then go) If it’s yes, then you say, “THEN you must do/not do [behavior]”. When you phrase it like a direct choice, the child seems to take ownership of it in a way they don’t when you phrase it as an ultimatum coming down from on high. (Children of a certain age also respond better to simple commands, and this is a command that they own.) This works surprisingly early.

    Anyway, this is the way I learned to deal with situations like that, since you asked. This is a great topic, thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks for the comment – and the perspective. You raise a very good point, and I’ll try to use your advice the next time I’m in a situation like this.

      My point was just that it’s not my responsibility to discipline anyone’s kid but my own, so as long as I’m taking care of my kid, I don’t much care what the misbehaving kid gets out of the interaction. Also, I’m dealing with a very young age group (my kids are 2 1/2 right now) that isn’t quite as in touch with their emotions yet and maybe doesn’t have the attention span to sit down and build a sand snail just yet. Not sure if it’ll work at this point, but I’m going to give it a shot.

      • It works even better with the littler ones. They accept your authority without question. I’m always surprised at how many adults seem to be reliving their childhoods and feeling too timid to take charge, rather than realizing they are the teachers now.

        No, it isn’t your responsibility to discipline anyone’s kid, but you can either handle what you have to do to protect your own by completely transforming the “opposing” child and his/her behavior, or by reinforcing it and having to keep dealing with it. It’s a wonder to witness that instant transformation. (If you are a part of a parenting group, though, everyone does take responsibility for each others’ children, which makes it easier.)

        You don’t have to make them sit down and build or do anything (by the way, it was me who built the sand snail for my nephew that the little “bully” busted up), but often the misbehavior is really because these other kids just have never learned a positive way to insert themselves into a social situation they wish to be a part of. You don’t have to condone the misbehavior, you’re just separating the child’s still forming character from whatever they just did. If nothing else, it’s a great example to set.

        If you do give it a shot, I’d love to hear how it goes.

  19. This is an awesome post. I wish you had been my parent. I love the approach you take which validates your own child, and demonstrates not only how much you care and you are there for your kid, but also demonstrates how to be assertive and stand up for what’s right without resorting to pushing, name calling, shrieking, or any other equally negative responses.

  20. you have a great list Jerry. Teaching the kids how to stand up for themselves is important as well but that comes with time and patience and watching you do it for them and with them. I do like the way others have turned the confrontation into a teaching moment for the other child and that is great when it happens but doesn’t always turn out that way. I’m the parent that intervenes with everyone’s kids and have done it right up and through the teen and early adult years. I can only think of one parent that got upset by the interactions but there was another history between that parent and myself and I think the ‘history’ was more the issue.

    • Yeah, I’m not quite at the stage where I have lots of history with other parents. Usually, it’s me at the park versus a parent I’ll probably never run into again. That’s a lot safer for sure. 🙂

  21. Jerry, this is great advice. Where were you 35 years ago when I was (helping my wife) raise my our children. I was never that firm, but I totally agree that it is the right thing to do.

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  24. I totally agree with AJ and appreciate the approach of not looking at “bad” kids who need “discipline”, but rather working towards everyone getting along and feeling included.

  25. I’m finding this years after the original post. I completely agree with your approach. The bully in our case is a cousin who lives nearby and is in regular contact with our kids. Our kids enjoy playing with this cousin, but we have coached them many times over the years how to defend their own boundaries (physically if verbally doesn’t work, and if no parent/adult is intervening on their behalf). It is such a pain for my husband and me to have to be two of six adults present (includes grandparents), and feel like we two have to be constantly so vigilant on our kids’ behalf because this cousin’s parents are more or less in la-la land while their kid continually tackles and is in other ways overly physical with our kids.

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