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.