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Debate: Should You Discipline Other People's Kids?

Brain, Child
By Nanci Olesen

This is a scene I remember from about seven years ago:

I walked into our living room to see three-year-old Roberto standing on top of our coffee table, clutching a glass Christmas ornament tightly and waving it above his head.

"WHOA!" I said (I like to think I spoke loudly, in an urgent tone). "Get down, Roberto! Hand me that ornament, please!"

My son Henry stood looking at me, knowing that our new guest had been doing something that we don't do in this house. Roberto handed me the ornament. I said something about how we don't take ornaments off the tree and we don't stand on the coffee table. Roberto ran over to Henry's little wooden train and started throwing the train cars in every direction.

Henry sat himself on the couch, looking like he might cry. I asked Roberto to stop throwing train cars and announced that lunch was ready. As I recall it now, the macaroni and cheese occupied them both for a while... and then (yay!) Roberto's mother arrived.

I told her what had gone on and that I thought it was dangerous for Roberto to climb on our coffee table. Roberto's mom, Maria, speaks with a thick Italian accent and dresses like she's straight out of Vogue magazine. "He climbs all over in our house, and he gets into everything," she said to me curtly. Feeling self-conscious in my stained t-shirt and torn jeans and intimidated by her Italian-ness, I left it at that.

After another Henry/Roberto play date in which I tried to keep Roberto from pulling all the books out of our bookshelves, Maria got upset with me for trying to tell her that Roberto needed to follow our rules in our house. We ended up stopping our play dates altogether.

That incident made me sad, but it also helped me learn how to talk to other parents, especially parents I don't know very well. I like to feel that my kids are safe and well-cared for with other people when they are playing elsewhere, and I just assume that parents whose children I care for expect the same. I can sense quite early on in a new relationship if the parent seems similar in style to me. It's best when everyone can agree on the rules. That way "discipline" is more of a distant threat than the inevitable end of the play date.

It gets uncomfortable when you really like the mom but you really disagree with how the kids are cared for. It's complicated when you feel a need to be polite, which I do, but I have had to forsake politeness for firmness when there's a conflict. For example, we don't believe in spanking in our household, and I would be very uncomfortable if I heard of one of my children being spanked in another household. I would be firm about removing my child from that childcare swap.

In the last ten years, I have had more children under my care in our house than I can even count. Recently on a weekend morning, I was in charge of ten children, ages six through thirteen. I have half a dozen close friends with whom I share childcare responsibilities in a haphazard, call-when-you-need-help manner. I am happy to carry a one-year-old on my back while making dinner, or to read a book to a herd of kids gathered in my living room in the late afternoon. I like the idea of helping out other moms and having them help me out in return. Part of having this support system, though, is recognizing that when my children are under the care of other parents, they are in charge of handling the ebb and flow of my kids' behavior. I've heard of childcare co-ops where parents sit down and actually write a manifesto of how they want to trade childcare and what the rules are, for discipline and for scheduling. For me, it works best to just "feel" it. Do these kids all enjoy playing with each other? Do we parents pretty much jibe on how to raise kids?

When there are "issues" about discipline, I have to say that any kid under my care has to follow my rules. We have a set bedtime, and it covers guests too. We eat at the kitchen table and we all start eating together, and we say "thank you" when we're done. We close doors to the basement when we come up and we put our toys away five or ten minutes before moms or dads arrive to pick kids up. Now that my kids are seven, eight, and twelve, they can make cookies with their friends (with minimal supervision from me), and ride bikes or even go sledding in our neighborhood on their own.

Of course, sometimes our guests flaunt the rules, and I do feel within my right to discipline. For me, the bottom line of disciplining my own kids or other people's kids is respect. I have to show respect for the person whose behavior I'm trying to influence and I have to get respect from them in return. I am pretty adamant about respect. I really don't like to yell at kids and although I have done so in my life, I have to say that I think it is rare and that I think it doesn't work. It is instant condemnation of the kid's actions. I like instead to try to communicate with the child in a respectful way, by making eye contact and sitting them down to talk about whatever behavior is a problem.

However, the younger the kids that you're caring for are, the less likely just talking it out will work. I have to intervene more to keep things on track. Kids like to know what their boundaries are and they like to have a loose handle on a schedule. I do try the old "time-out" thing and I even separate kids until the play date is over if I have to.

I have heard of my own kids being put in time-out in other homes, usually after some kind of problem with sharing a toy. It seems fine to me. Kids need a break from each other when they just can't handle the stress of being together and not getting what they want.

It all sounds like a whole lot of hassle, but in the end, visiting and having vistors is good for our kids. Remember how you used to enjoy going to other kids' houses when you were a kid? How the mom was different from your mom and the way they ate was different (or the way they got to eat in the treehouse?!)? Whatever it was that felt so exotic, it's a change of pace for the kids to get to dive into life at another family's house. I want my kids to experience all kinds of different households, but I want them to be safe and respected. I do a lot of this by intuition. I get the sense that other parents do the same thing with us.

If you came to my house you would be happy, I think, because it's a fun place. I try to get enough sleep so that I am a friendly human being, and I love the work I do, work that often keeps me right nearby. We have dumpy old furniture so you can hang out in any room and feel comfortable, but it is a pretty clean house.

But please don't stand on the coffee table. And if you come around Christmas time and you have little kids, tell them before they get to the door to leave the ornaments on the tree.

—Nanci Olesen
producer and host, MOMbo: 1990-2007


Nanci Olesen's commentaries that have aired on Minnesota Public Radio:

06 may 2005 • Mother's Day

17 dec 2004 • Santa Lucia

02 dec 2004 • Holiday Blues

10 sept 2004 • First Week of School

09 july 2004 • Cell Phones

10 march 2004 • Circus Food

Dad in Church

Nanci Olesen's commentaries that have been published in magazines:

May 2002 • Road Trip


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