“It takes a village to raise a child.”
Many of us love this saying, as we imagine spreading out the exhausting duties of parenthood amongst our peers. We yearn for emotional support to help us handle the many feelings that raising children entails, as well as logistical support with the practical day-to-day grind of cooking, cleaning, transporting, etc.
However, there’s one aspect of village life that we may not always feel comfortable with: disciplining one another’s children.
As much as I’d appreciate a thoughtful adult stepping in if my child were misbehaving and I wasn’t around to see it, I also worry about what that can look like. Every family has its own standards and methods of discipline, and applying our own to another person’s kid isn’t always ideal.
At the same time, there are some universal no-nos I think we can all agree on. It’s not okay for one kid to bully another. It’s not okay to take something that isn’t yours without asking. It’s not okay to lie, cheat, steal, or treat others unkindly. And if a kid is doing any of those things, it’s up to the adults present to intervene (as respectfully as possible).
But if a kid is climbing up the slide when others want to come down, how long do you let that continue before you ask them to stop? If a kid is feeling left out, do you say something to the kids who are being exclusive? If a child is being destructive in a place where such behavior isn’t appropriate, at what point do you say something? If the parents are there, but just ignoring the situation, do you speak to them first or go directly to the kid?
Most of us have found ourselves in gray area situations like those before. Some of us may err on the side of minding our own business to the point of letting hurtful behavior go unchecked. Some of us may err on the side of overcorrection, intervening before kids have a chance to work things out themselves or stepping on other parents’ toes.
While there are no perfect answers to the “should I discipline this kid even though they aren’t mine” question, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Make sure that you really know what’s happening before taking any action. Sometimes our mama instinct prompts us to make assumptions about other people’s kids when our own children are involved, so take the time to really observe and ensure you have all the facts.
2. Remember that there may be circumstances you can’t see, even if you’re looking closely. A child might have special needs that aren’t apparent on the surface. A kid may be going through a family crisis of some sort. Even if you think you know all the facts, keep in mind that you may not. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t intervene in a problematic situation, but avoid making blanket assumptions or judgments about kids or their parents.
3. Give kids a chance to work out conflict by themselves before intervening. Kids learn a lot through social interactions, even—or sometimes especially—the challenging ones. At some point, it may become necessary to help them work things out, but sitting back and observing how your kid works through a problem can be valuable and can help you figure out what skills you might want to help them develop.
4. If it does become necessary to intervene with a specific child’s behavior, talk to the kid’s parents first if they’re around. I personally would prefer that I be the one to talk to my kid about their behavior, and if I don’t see something, I’d appreciate someone letting me know that my kid is going off the rails.
This can be done in a gentle, friendly way, with something like, “Hi, I think your son might need your help—he’s pulling all the books off the shelf,” or “It looks like your daughter is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself, and I figured you should be the one to say something to her.”
5. If the parents aren’t nearby and you feel the need to discipline someone else’s kid, remember that the primary meaning of discipline is to teach. The goal isn’t to punish a kid for bad behavior, it’s to protect all of the children in the situation and to use your influence as an adult to teach them how to be civilized human beings.
Be as gentle and kind as possible. Be firm, if needed, but never harsh. Treating children with respect not only protects you from accusations from defensive parents, it’s also usually the most effective method of changing behavior. If a kid doesn’t respond to respectful correction, they’re probably not going to respond to disrespectful correction, either.
6. Respect a child’s bodily autonomy. Unless there’s an immediate physical threat, like you’re grabbing a child before they get hit by a car or breaking up two kids fighting, don’t put your hands on someone else’s kid. This rule protects both the child’s dignity and your own liability.
7. Be prepared to explain the situation to the kid’s parents. Some might get upset with you for stepping in, so have your calm-but-serious response about their child’s behavior and why you intervened ready to go. If you followed the steps outlined above, you can feel comfortable knowing you’ve done the right thing. If other parents get upset because you respectfully tried to keep their child (and others) safe, that’s their issue, not yours.
Not everyone in a village will always agree, and that’s okay. But it’s the adults’ responsibility to make sure children are safe, protected, and not causing harm to others. If you don’t want other people to discipline your kids, make sure you’re always there watching them. Otherwise, let the grown-ups share the teaching duties—as long as it’s done gently and respectfully, there’s no harm in disciplining other people’s children when the circumstance calls for it.