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Moms Talk: The Bad Behavior of Other Parents' Children

In our last Moms Talk Segment we discussed how to deal with comparisons as they pertain to children's developmental milestones. This week, Moms Councilmember Helena Hewlett asks, "How do you deal with other parents' unruly children?"

For many moms, it’s not difficult to take charge at an anonymous place such as a playground by scolding an unruly child who is bullying others or encouraging children to share or take turns. Maybe in the back of our minds we find these situations relatively easy to deal with because we think, “I’ll never see this child or his mother again. I’ll just do my best to fix this situation right now, and I won’t have to deal with it again.”

It’s not as easy when you’re dealing with friends and family. These are people whose feelings are important to you, and people who you will be seeing again and again. So, uncomfortable moments or confrontations may be avoided in order to save yourself from future grief.

Not long ago, we had a large group of people and their children over to our house. I am pretty laid-back about my son Caleb’s toys and allow anyone to play with them. As far as I’m concerned, they are all “fair game.” I do not hide Caleb’s special toys that are particularly important to him, nor do I establish ground rules for where the toys are to be played with or how to treat the toys. It may very well be my own mistake for having assumed that our house, and more specifically, Caleb’s toys, would be treated with respect. This is something I naïvely assume parents instill in their children. Treating one’s own toys with respect is important, but certainly when you are in another person’s home, treat their belongings with respect. Isn’t that how it works?

One child kindly came up to me at one point and asked if he could take several of Caleb’s toys outside. I was impressed with his request and let him pick out five little action figures to take outside with him. I asked him to make sure that he remembered to bring all of them back inside. I appreciated his responsible attitude about the situation and knew that his parents were supervising him. I know that some parents have certain toys that are meant to be taken outside and others which are only allowed indoors.

However, several of the other children did not think twice about bringing tons of Caleb’s toys outside and mashing them into mud. Their parents did not seem to mind this behavior. Now, this would have been the appropriate time for me to address the matter. But I hesitated because I did not know how to handle it. I did not want to offend the parents. Our children and our parenting skills (or lack thereof) are all pretty touchy subject matters, particularly when we feel that we are being lectured or attacked and made out to be bad parents. Even though I would not have been presenting my feelings in this way, it may have come across that way. And yet, I wanted to establish and implement rules at my home. I felt this was only fair. Though I was frustrated, I just figured I would wash the toys later and not worry about addressing the matter.

Another child, who was 5 years old, decided he would scribble all over several of my paving stones surrounding the garden with a black permanent marker. And just when I “caught” him and took the marker from him, he was very proud to announce that he had “colored on my rocks, and it would not come off.”  I told him very sternly that he was a big boy and knew better than to behave that way. I felt that he should not only apologize but also that there should be some sort of consequence for this unacceptable behavior. But nothing was done, and the matter was never addressed. Of course, it was never addressed by me either, so I wonder if I am partially to blame. But I figured the consequences of me confronting the parents would be far worse. So again, I let it go and hoped that I’d find a magic way to erase the marker. So far, no luck. All this rain has not eroded the marker, much to my dismay. I’m certainly not in love with my paving stones, but it was the principle of the matter.

After the get-together, I ended up throwing away about 15 of Caleb’s toys which had been snapped, twisted, or broken in one way or another. Several of them were in his “favorites” category, and were not fixable. This was really hard for me. I don’t think I'm an unreasonable person. Boys tend to play rough. Kids inevitably break things. Little children often misbehave because they are still learning. OK, these are all true. But I feel like the whole point of parenting is to teach your children as they are growing and to learn along with them. So, even though children may be on different levels of maturity, in my opinion, 5-year-olds should not be purposely breaking toys and scribbling on paving stones. This is not acceptable behavior. And if a child should accidentally break a toy, that’s OK! But it’s still nice to apologize. And if the child does not, it’s nice for the parent to apologize FOR the child, or at least use it as a teaching opportunity. One or two toys being broken seems normal to be. Fifteen is another story.

I struggled with knowing how I should handle the situation. Was I being really unreasonable? These are, after all, “firsts” for me. Maybe I have certain expectations that are not being met. I am just hesitant to address bad behavior with parents who are friends or family members.

How you handle these types of situations that involved other parents' unruly children, and what has been productive for you?

Sharon May 17, 2011 at 01:28 AM
In my opinion, such behavior is absolutely unacceptable, especially the marker incident. I can't even imagine parents noticing that and doing nothing, and saying nothing. I can imagine, on the other hand, parents assuming that any toys which "all the kids" are playing with outside have been approved by you for that purpose. I wouldn't necessarily think to question whether or not permission had been received for each toy outside if the hostess were right there watching. In some cases NOT stopping someone else's kid from doing something could be construed as permission, since the patents don't know what the ground rules are at your house. They may not even know that you were offended. It is rude, in my opinion, to not instruct and enforce careful toy handling, especially when the toys aren't yours. They could have at least said, "hey, don't be so rough" and asked you if it was okay or if you were worried about those toys. (Kathlyn is pretty rough on her toys, but I am always careful in public places or another person's home to emphasize that she MUST be gentle or the toys will be taken away. As a real airhead, I can't imagine why someone else wouldn't be able to do that.) Maybe the disappointment you feel is justification enough to be a little more assertive next time around.
Michelle May 20, 2011 at 05:24 AM
Why do people insist on walking on eggshells when it comes to other people's kids in your own home?? If the parents are not going to do there job and teach their childern respect while they are guests in your home, they have given that task to you. Kids are not dumb, they know where the line is if you draw it clearly for them. I am not suggesting I am harsh to kids that visit my home, just firm. Lines are drawn clearly, and I have no issue saying "Please don't do that." to a child that is not mine in my home. If the parents are offended they have never said so, and I haven't had anyone turn down an invitation to revisit yet. Same goes for my child in someone elses home, if my child messes up I expect them to say something, what good does it do to come tell me, or just not say anything, allowing him to think that was ok? I want the lesson to be taught when the bad behavior happens. Most kids who revisit are rarely reminded of what is allowed and not allowed in my house, because I am consistent and fair. They always have a good time when they know their boundaries, there is never any question for them what I allow and don't in my home.
Helena Hewlett May 22, 2011 at 10:58 AM
Sharon and Michelle, thanks for your comments! I appreciate your feedback, it's always good to hear from other mommies with experience. Michelle, I think the "walking on eggshells" part is not so much with the kids as it is with the parents. Like you, I have no problem talking to other people's kids. My husband often, in fact, calls me "the playground nazi." Not a very "nice" term, but nevertheless. I do implement rules in other areas, and you're completely right - this is part of why I wrote my article. Why, oh why, do I have so much trouble doing it in my own home? This should be the place where I am MOST comfortable with setting limits, boundaries, rules, expectations, etc. The rules are mine, as it is MY home. Although in the case above I did speak to the children a few times and in the case of the one who drew on my paving stones...I'd say "yelled" or "spoke sternly" would be much more accurate, I did not feel like I was taking charge to the full degree, and that was mainly due to the fact that I did not want to have horrible conficts with the parents. I hesitated to speak to the parents or get angry, because I knew the consequences would be far worse than just a little disagreement or misunderstanding. This particular group of people is super sensitive about their children, and let's face it...I think we all are to a degree. It's not easy being told, "Hey, your kid is being a brat right now." But I agree that there is a certain standard for behavior. Thanks again!

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