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Being The Mean Mommy: When (And How) To Discipline Someone Else’s Kid

We’ve heard it a zillion times: “it takes a village!”  
But does this philosophy apply to collaborative discipline when the kid acting out is not our own?  It’s a touchy subject, for sure, but one that begs for etiquette answers amidst a culture with no clear guidebook.

The good news is that from a cognitive-behavioral perspective, there are highly effective (and studied!) ways to co-discipline alongside your mommy pals without souring a friendship.  Here are some strategies to use when you find yourself in the “mean mommy” role:

1. Let the parent take the lead

Before you jump into patrol mode, try to give the child’s parent(s) an opportunity intervene first. If there is no action and the child is causing a significant disruption or safety concern, go with your gut and interject appropriately. That being said, also be ready to let the child’s parent take over if they recognize the need to respond.

2. Use kindness and mind your temper

Always be sure that your reprimanding is coming from a place of love, and not of anger or irritation. Kids learn best when being guided away from a particular behavior or action with a stern but gentle voice versus one that is demeaning or alarming. Using phrases like, “no thank you, Johnny” or “Sara, could you please give our cat some space?” foster an atmosphere of mutual respect while establishing rules.

mean mommy

How to react when it’s not your kid that’s acting up

3. Be mindful of using words like “bad” and “naughty”

Tailor your language away from using moral extremes such as being “bad” or “good”.  These are actually really difficult concepts for kids to cognitively process so opt for specificity in behavior. For example, instead of saying, “pushing is bad!”, try using phrases like, “we do not push others” or “pushing hurts others”. These types of responses encourage empathy and are better received by onlooking parents.

4. Only use physical touch when safety is in jeopardy

Most parents become territorial when touch is involved in reprimanding by others. Giving the child some physical distance when addressing his or her behavior will make both the child and their parents feel more at ease and as a result, more receptive to your words. Although it should go without saying, one should never forcefully grab, hit, spank, or physically punish the child. Repeated research shows there are no developmental learning benefits involved in this strategy.

5. Clearly outline the expectations in your home

When a child is acting out in your home, it is best to redirect their attention to the established rules of the home. Stating reasonable ground rules at the beginning of a play date can help give any kid a better sense of boundaries while reducing the possibility conflict later on.  If a rule is broken, it is easier for you to gently return to the expectations rather than scold when the child isn’t aware of the rules. A secondary benefit of this strategy is that your own child may take an active role in guiding his or her peer back to appropriate play.

6. Be consistent…and receptive

Don’t be that parent. If you’re going to discipline someone else’s child in the moment, you better be sure that you are using the same strategies, tone, and vigilance with your own kid(s). Similarly, be open to others correcting your kid if you’re not quick enough to catch the behavior first.

7. Communicate and be honest

The best way to avoid conflict due to discipline is by being open with others about your parenting style. If parents feel ambushed by your approach with their kids, they may have difficulty approaching you about it or even wanting to schedule another play date.  Instead, be up front about your expectations, especially in your own home. If you do intervene with another’s child, be sure to follow up and address the situation as soon as possible, especially if the parent wasn’t present.  The parent may not be thrilled by your response but at least he or she will appreciate your honesty and efforts to solicit feedback about the interaction.

Hey, no one wants to be the mean mommy on the block.  

But often being true to yourself, your values, and your parenting style has its perks too.  Discipline in love and the rest will fall into place.

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