Can I Discipline Someone Else's Kid?

How to draw a line in the sandbox, without annoying other moms

Photograph by Getty Images

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.”

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: When have you had to discipline someone else's child?

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?’”

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