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.

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

  1. Great points, as usual!! I had to do this very often as the mother of a child with disabilities and learning challenges as well. I also was a teacher. I often used situations to try and garner those “teachable moments” as you pointed out. Cautiously choosing words to allow the kids as well as parents to see I was not trying to condemn, but to tame the situation. I also taught disability lessons in many grade levels and to parents as well in many settings. Allowing others to try and imagine what visual impairment, seizures, clumsy fingers, LD, crutches, and other disabilities might be like. Then I assigned them tasks to accomplish with the bound hands, clouded glasses, Description of seizure and post ictal feelings, now go do these specific jobs…..most of the students came away enlightened. Some did not chose to learn, but some were eager to take the classes year after year.

    Standing by and watching kids bully others is just not something that i do well. Having adults do this (say rude things, ) is not something I tolerate well. I prefer to try to find something kind, even a tad jokingly pleasant to bring a new perspective if possible. WHen a child is involved, I hope to give the message that there are other ways to deal with situations.

    Thank you for your wonderful insights!

    Ginny M

  2. Different countries/cultures will respond differently also. We may expect that our neighbors may have different cultural norms and that affects their response. (i.e. the other parent sitting back while their child misbehaves may be reasonably expecting you to intervene as the closest adult – a favor that they would return if they were closest to the action.)

  3. I love your suggestion to pleasantly involve parents. I have 4 children that are 4, 6, 10, and 11. My oldest is bi-polar with ADHD, ODD, and OCD and is being evaluated for Asperger Syndrome currently. I try to never be that mom chit chatting while the adult running the activity is struggling to keep everyone in order. More often I am the adult running the activity watching the other parents ignore their children. That is frustrating! That being said, I know I have had moments where I am watching the children play and they are in different spots on the playground and I miss something that someone did that really needs correcting. I can recall a time another parent approached me and said I needed to watch my son better, in a very nasty tone. That puts the parent on the defensive right away and is not productive for anyone. Sometimes the parent is at fault because they are chatting or texting or daydreaming, but there are times the parent is just trying to keep on eye on his/her whole herd of kidlets and missed something. I recall another time a parent approached me as I was pushing my youngest on a swing and told me that one of the other kids had just thrown sand and she thought I should know. Now that, well that didn’t bother me a bit and I was grateful for her telling me! I swear my children are equiped with detectors and can tell the moment I turn my glance to another child! I try to remember that when I feel that I need to tell another parent what their child is doing. All too often though the parents is no where to be found. That just plainly makes me angry and feel bad for the child so there is a lot of tongue biting on those days at the playground.

    I have been a cub scout den leader in the past and having experienced that I have to ask a question. A successful doctor, writer, and a mother of 5 who is very involved with the children and even volunteers to be den leader…so where do you hide your cape?

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