Disciplining Other People’s Children
“I wanted to strangle the kid!” a friend of mine exclaimed as he recalled the recent behavior of a visiting child at his daughter’s sixth birthday party. My friend is a family therapist who is among the most patient and understanding people I know. Although he did not yield to his urges and in fact handled the situation very well, his anger and frustration highlight the difficulties that arise when adults have to discipline other people’s children.
In retrospect, the birthday party incident should not have been a surprise. It began when one of the twenty children attending couldn’t sit still during a magic show. He began elbowing the other children on either side of him. Since the child’s parents were not around, the host asked him to sit quietly. Five minutes later, the child’s elbows were flying again.
“I picked him up and took him away from the rest of the group,” the host explained. “I looked at him eyeball to eyeball and explained that his behavior was not permitted in our house. He agreed to behave properly.”
Following the magic show, the children took turns trying to break open a pinata with a plastic baseball bat. When the misbehaving child’s turn came, he grabbed the bat and started hitting the other children over the head. The host took away the bat and, keeping his own primitive responses in check, escorted the child to an adjacent room until they both calmed down.
Birthday parties are among the most likely situations to trigger aggressive behaviors among visiting children under the age of seven or eight. Children of that age do not yet have a well-developed sense of empathy, and get little joy from someone else’s celebration. They often feel ambivalent or jealous that another child is the center of attention and that they must give a gift without immediately receiving an equal or better gift in return. These feelings, when combined with the extra stimulation of ice cream, cake, entertainment and party games, may become overwhelming. Faced with this situation, some children lose control. Their disruptive, acting-out behavior is contagious and rapidly spreads to other overstimulated children.
Such out-of-control behavior is much less common when young children are playing in small groups. Instead, parents are more likely to observe arguing, taunting or teasing. Although this type of behavior isn’t nice, parents shouldn’t be concerned or try to intervene unless it becomes dangerous. In fact, certain types of fighting between young children serves a very useful purpose, for it teaches them ways of handling disagreements and power struggles with peers.
The places where children’s disruptive behaviors occur may be more important than what those children do when they’re out of control. Most emotionally healthy children are more constrained when they are at friends’ houses than when they are at home. One reasons is that children feel more secure in their relationships with their parents than in their relationships with other adults. They know that their parents will love them even if they do something bad. It’s a sign of a more serious problem, however, when a child is controlled at home and uncontrolled at school or at other people’s houses.
Disciplining Another’s Child
So what should you do if you have to discipline someone else’s child? This is more complex and emotionally draining than disciplining your own kids. The fact that the child’s actions are no reflection on your own skills as a parent is of little comfort at the time.