Is it ever okay to discipline another person’s child?

We’ve all been there. It could have happened at a playground, at the dinner table or in the lounge room of your home.

Someone else’s child misbehaves. Perhaps they pushed someone over, used a bad word or jumped on your new couch with dirty sneakers.

When it comes to challenging behaviour in children, I tend to err on the side of compassion. There is often a myriad of reasons why a young child will do the ‘wrong’ thing, and sometimes they don’t even know that they’ve done something ‘wrong’.

But recently I’ve started to think, is it my responsibility to pull the child into line? I’m the adult after all, and if their adult isn’t there – isn’t my job to put the boundaries in place?

I’ve given it some thought and asked Derek McCormack, Acting Executive Director at the Raising Children Network for his advice. Here are his recommendations and some ideas that might help you.

Cheeky young boy looking wide-eyed - feature

1. How would you feel about someone disciplining your child?

When my daughter was about three years old, a family friend yelled at her. She ran crying to me. At the time, my husband said that it was appropriate as she had been doing the wrong thing. I disagreed.

I disagreed because discipline in my view is not about yelling. It’s not shaming and it doesn’t involve anger. Discipline is about guiding a child to better behaviour.

I know not everyone shares this approach to discipline, so if I see a child doing something that I would consider misbehavior, I need to assume their parents have their own ideas about what counts as discipline.

2. If you are looking after someone else’s child, don’t assume she know your family rules

We all know what happens when you assume.

Derek says we need to be aware that you might have different rules to the visiting child’s family.

“It is important that other children coming into the family home respect the rules of the family they are visiting. If the child breaks the family rules, it would be appropriate to gently let the visiting child know. For example, ‘we don’t allow swear words in this house’ or ‘we don’t jump on the couch with dirty shoes’.”

And if there’s something you really can’t abide (like jumping on the couch) let the child know the boundaries before the playdate starts.

Friends at childcare - feature

3. If you do have to step in, do it gently

Derek says that sometimes another adult does need to step in. If you feel that intervention is necessary, there are a number of ways you can address the problem.

“Depending on the age of the child, it is often best to use distraction and/or humour to change the behaviour rather than ‘telling off’,” he explains. 

You don’t need to let things get out of hand because you can be firm without being unkind. 

4. When it comes to other people’s children, ask what the parents are okay with 

My sister and I often do a babysitting swap. I’ll look after her kids, and she’ll look after mine. 

Most times, we both see the swap as a bit of a treat for the kids. The rules aren’t the same when she’s looking after them. I don’t expect her to get them to bed on time, and I don’t mind if she slips them a lolly or lets them stay up late to watch TV.

But the first time I looked after my niece and nephew, I didn’t ask her anything. I didn’t ask what time she wanted them in bed, whether they were allowed two serves of chocolate ice cream or if they could watch TV in her bed. 

I felt terrible, like I was letting her and the kids down. I was also a bit harsher with them than I needed to be when they went to bed. 

Now I know that she doesn’t expect me to discipline her kids. She’s happy for me to be the ‘fun aunty’. I know she doesn’t expect me to keep them in line, and I’m okay with that. I also know that she’s happy for me to be firm if they do push things too far.


It’s all pretty obvious stuff, but I feel better knowing I can check in with these points if one of my kids’ friends ends up being a little ratbag.

Which I am yet to experience, but hey, I like to be prepared!

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