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Can I Discipline Someone Else's Kid?

We've all been there: Your preschooler is playing nicely in the park, creating a construction site with all the sand toys you remembered to bring from home.

Suddenly, some kid—maybe a year or two older, and definitely bigger—comes over and swipes the dump truck. You are annoyed. You want to walk over. You want to call out, "Hey, don't do that!" Should you?

Disciplining other people's children is a tricky business. The way you react sends powerful messages, and not just about the possession of a wayward sand toy.

Let's return to the sandbox and our dump-truck-less preschooler. "It's hard to watch your kid be in an uncomfortable situation," says Dr. Jody McVittie, a Seattle-based lead trainer for Positive Discipline, a program that grew out of parenting books of the same name. "When our kids are upset … we feel like we need to step in and take action."

There's a problem with that, McVittie says: Our kids don't learn how to problem-solve, themselves.

So first, assess your child. Maybe he's shrugged and moved on with his play. If he's not upset, don't get upset on his behalf, says Betsy Brown Braun, author of the parenting book Just Tell Me What To Say. You can always retrieve the dump truck before you go. No need to create a fuss where none exists.

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But if he is frowning or starting to cry, "I'd go up to my child and say, 'Was that OK with you?'" Braun says. "If he says 'no,' then I say, 'What shall we do about it?'"

In fact, these kinds of situations are golden opportunities for teaching your child self-reliance.

"Long-term, you want them to manage these interactions for themselves," McVittie says. "If we keep rescuing our kids, our kids are not going to be able to do it for themselves."

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Of course, this does not apply if your child is in danger. If another kid is about to push yours off the top of the slide, yell, run over, do whatever is necessary to stop an accident before it happens.

But otherwise, take a moment to brainstorm a solution with your child. Maybe he wants his toy back right now. Or perhaps he only wants the assurance that the other child is "borrowing" it and will return it in a few minutes. Either way, help your child figure out what he would like to say, and then get him to say it to the other kid, with you shadowing him if that helps.

"Kids respond to other kids really well," McVittie says.

So, is it ever advisable to approach another parent, particularly a stranger, about their child's behavior?

Sure, says Braun, especially if you see your child and the other one playing in a way that seems headed toward a fight.

"I would go over to the other parent," she says. "I'd say, 'This looks like it's heading to a place where there may be an issue. Will you help me keep an eye on it?'"

Ultimately, though, when it comes to children's interactions, it's all about the teachable moment. "When the parents are too involved," Braun says, "the child gets the message that you don't have faith in his ability to solve his problems."

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Even if your child is shy, even if he says you must do the talking, persevere. "You don't step in for him," Braun says. "If it matters enough, he's going to learn to speak up."

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