Playground police: when should you correct the behavior of someone else’s kid?

Claire McCarthy, MD

You’re at the park with your kid, who is playing in the sandbox. As you sit on the edge and watch, another kid in the sandbox grabs the toy your kid is playing with and takes it away. There is no parent in sight. What do you do?

Or—here’s a tougher one: you’re the only parent sitting at the sandbox, and Grabby Kid leaves your kid alone, but takes another kid’s toy away. What do you do then?

Deciding whether or not to discipline another person’s child is really hard. On the one hand, you want your child to be treated fairly (and in these situations they are often looking at you with eyes that are saying “Help!”). On the other hand, it’s not your kid and parenting and supervision styles are, shall we say, highly variable. You want your child to learn tolerance—but at the same time, you don’t want him to think you won’t stand up for him, or for what’s right. And then there’s the whole issue of when you should step in—and when you should let kids work it out themselves.

We’ve all been there. As a parent raising 5 kids ranging from 19 to 5, I’ve had lots of those moments—and I’ve watched lots of other parents navigate them. It’s been my experience that for the most part parents don’t step in. The Not-My-Kid stance is what I mostly see. Which is fine, and safe—but sometimes stepping in can be a better choice.

There are two situations when I think parents need to step in:

When someone is getting hurt. If Grabby Kid decides to hit your kid—or any kid—with the stolen toy, you should react immediately. This isn’t a discipline thing, it’s a safety thing. Everyone should be made safe, Grabby should be reprimanded (go for it, do it yourself), and all involved caretakers should be alerted.

When you’re in charge. When my son Zack was in 2nd grade, during a moment of insanity I volunteered to be a den mother for his Cub Scout troop. There were two boys in that troop who were problematic. Put less nicely: they were loud, rough, defiant, and disrupted everything I tried to do. Their mothers stayed for the meetings, but never mustered more than a “Stop that,” before going back to chit-chat. So I got all the boys together, defined some rules for behavior, and said that anyone who broke them couldn’t participate in our activities. After having to sit in the corner a couple of times while their friends played games and made things, the problematic boys did better (the mothers were obviously annoyed at me, go figure). Not great, but better.

Same goes for playdates—because you’re in charge there, too. Set down rules at the beginning, to be fair (just because you don’t allow roughhousing, name-calling, or running around chasing people with sticks doesn’t mean it works that way at New Friend’s house). And then enforce them, pleasantly. Exercise your option to ban repeat offenders from visiting. It’s your home.

It’s a whole lot fuzzier in other situations. And it’s always a good idea to take a deep breath and count to 10, because kids very often do take care of things themselves. But if they don’t, and you’re thinking you might want to step in but don’t know how, here are some suggestions:

Intervene nicely, without personalizing . Be absolutely sunny as you say to Grabby, “Gosh, I think she was playing with that truck. It’s not nice to take things away from people. Do you think you could share?”

Pleasantly involve parents. “Hey, just wanted to let you know that your child is taking toys (or throwing sand or pushing or whatever)”. You might be thinking evil thoughts, but pleasant always works better. “He must be having a bad day.”

Involve your child as peacemaker. When Grabby takes the other kid’s truck, say to your child, loud enough for Grabby’s parent to hear, “That little girl just had her truck taken away. Why don’t you give her yours, and you and I will go to the swings and I’ll push you really high!” You make your point and teach your child compassion at the same time.

You always have the option of exiting the situation—and sometimes (depending on the kid or parent involved) leaving the sandbox really is your best option. If you do, talk with your child about what happened. Talk about what the child did, and why it’s something your child should never do. Come up with ideas together about what your child might do if something like that happens again.

Because, really, this isn’t about raising someone else’s kid—it’s about raising yours. You want your child to know that some values, like kindness and fairness, should always apply—and are worth standing up for. That’s what you show them when you step in.

We can’t make everyone behave well. But when we set an example, and teach our children to stand up for themselves and others, we can make a difference—one sandbox at a time.