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There have been moments (not proud ones) when I’ve wanted to throttle other people’s children on the playground — the ones who repeatedly shoved past my shy then-toddler at the top of the slide, for example, or who chucked sand or swung branches toward any little face in their path.
And sometimes — after first fantasizing about doing what scary Peyton did to the bully in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” and then glancing around anxiously for the kid’s parent and seeing no one appear — I’ve taken matters into my own hands. Generally that’s meant a gentle tongue-lashing, which I’ve doled out just before spotting the missing mom or dad on a faraway bench, hunched over a smartphone. Still, I’ve never been sure whether my approach to disciplining other people’s kids was a good one.
“It’s such a delicate situation, because no parent likes another disciplining or reprimanding their child,” Susan Newman, a social psychologist and parenting expert tells Yahoo Parenting. “Parents are very protective. Even the one on the phone who appears not to care does, because every parent has a different way of disciplining and correcting, and all of them think they’re right. It makes for an impossible situation when you have a kid throwing dirt at your child.”
Unfortunately, the collective defensiveness among parents seems to be a sign of the times. “Used to be we all had front porches, you knew your neighbors, and you parented each other’s kids,” Sharon Silver, parenting author, educator, coach and founder of Proactive Parenting tells Yahoo Parenting. “Nobody ever had an issue with me saying ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ to their kid. But it’s not okay anymore. We’ve gone inside and online, and we’re not so connected with each other, so we take it personally.”
With that in mind, here are some various approaches to the ever-common kid-on-the-loose playground scenario:
Approach the parent as a team player. “Say, ‘We have a problem. Can you help?’” suggests Newman, stressing the use of “we” in the framing of the situation. Then just explain what’s happening, such as sand being thrown, and say you’re worried about your child getting injured. “You always want to reference your own child and not attack,” she says. “‘Your child is a bully’ is exactly what you don’t want to say.”
Recognize the teachable moment. “This type of situation presents a golden opportunity for a lesson between you and your child,” Silver points out. While watching the sandbox terror act out, she suggests, stand alongside your child and narrate. “You can say, ‘Wow, did you see that?’ and ‘I don’t think that’s okay. Do you? What else could he have done?’ Then they can figure out that there’s a pathway for dealing that doesn’t involve going and yelling at the parent.”
Be straight with the kid. Assuming you’ll get no help from the parent or caregiver, Newman says, approach the wild child and calmly explain the consequences of whatever it is that he or she is doing — “If you continue shoving past the little kids up there, one could fall and get hurt and wind up in the emergency room,” for example. “You don’t want to raise your voice and you don’t want to reprimand, but rather remain neutral and calm,” she suggests. “Otherwise you could exacerbate the situation by having the child feed off of your anxiety — they could just laugh.”
Address the group. Speak to all the kids involved in the scenario, knowing that the ringleader will hear you. “Make it a group announcement, like, ‘That looks dangerous!’” Silver says. Newman adds that you can try redirecting whatever group has gathered by changing the course of play. For example, she suggests, “You could say, ‘Okay, let’s race to that tree over there!”
Talk yourself down. “Ask yourself if you’re overreacting. Sometimes parents step in so fast, and often kids, depending on their age, are able to resolve things themselves,” says Newman. “A child who really feels endangered will walk away.”
Cut bait. “This is my last choice,” Newman says, “but you could always simply remove your child from the situation. Just say, ‘It’s time to go home.’”