“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.
Certain unsafe behaviors, such as playing with sharp objects or running onto a road, require immediate reactions from all adults. But what about more benign areas, such as table manners or language?
The child may come from a family that has different standards and expectations of behavior. The child’s parents may interpret an outside adult’s attempts at discipline as an affront to them or, at an extreme, as an assault upon their child. By permitting another child to behave in a way you do not approve, are you giving a mixed and confusing message to your own children? Here are some guidelines:
- Remember that you have the right to make the rules in your own house. Just because the other child insists that his parents allow him to do something doesn’t mean you have to allow it as well. Also, with young children, don’t worry about trying to justify your rules. They’re not mature enough to understand complex logical thought. Instead, simply state the rules and repeat them when necessary.
- Remember that young children may not be aware of alternative behaviors that adults take for granted. Stating that talking at the dinner table with a mouthful of food is not acceptable may do little to change the behavior of a four-year-old unless the child is also told that he or she should swallow the food before speaking. Similarly, telling children that roughhousing indoors is not allowed will often have little effect unless you provide them with an alternative activity that also allows them to burn off energy.
- Large groups of children require different tactics. A visiting child who is out of control when she’s part of a group will have a great deal of trouble regaining her composure unless she’s physically removed from that setting. It’s often useful to take the child to a different room and give her something quiet to do, such as reading a book or listening to a tape or CD. If that doesn’t work, don’t punish the child since she probably won’t learn what you’re hoping she will. Instead, call the parents and tell them that their child is having a hard time handling the activities.