If your child is hitting on the playground, you’re on it. Your child knows the rules, and you know what to do when he breaks them. But what do you do when someone else’s kid is smacking others in the sandbox? Do you practice good mommy manners?
None of us wants a stranger disciplining our children, but is it ever wise, or even acceptable? We asked the experts for tactful, unconfrontational ways to handle this type of conflict.
Keeping kids safe
If a child is hitting, biting or pushing, and safety is compromised, it is OK to physically separate the children so that both kids are safe. It is not your job to discipline someone else’s child, but it is OK to label the behavior, according to Carolyn Pirak, former director of Bringing Baby Home now with the Talaris Institute. For example, Pirak suggests saying something like “We all need to feel safe here, and hitting doesn’t make us feel safe.”
Letting kids sort it out
If the kids are old enough (at least toddler age), you can encourage them to resolve the conflict themselves. According to child psychologist Elizabeth Hletko, “You want to model proactive behavior and problem solving by coaching a verbal child to solve the problem himself.” You might encourage a child to ask that a toy be returned or that another child not hit or push.
Pirak also encourages children to come up with their own solution, stating the problem in simple terms and short sentences, such as “We have a problem. We have one shovel and we have two kids. What should we do?”
Talking to the other parent
Most of us are concerned about offending other parents and prefer to avoid confrontations. Parent educator Barbara Swenson warns, “Raising someone else’s child is lethal territory. People will always jump to the defense of their children and interpret your comments as an attack on their child and their parenting skills.” And Swenson notes that one conversation will not change another person’s parenting style. “We have the expectation that if we tell the other mother, she will have this magic salve that she puts on her child and he will change,” she says. But, according to Swenson, telling a mother that her child is misbehaving will likely only hurt her feelings and put her on the defensive.
But when we say nothing, we miss out on the opportunity to teach our children positive conflict resolution and good manners. “If there is an opportunity for a teachable moment, you want to make the most of it,” says Sally Kidder Davis, a certified parent coach for Sound Parent, LLC.
It is important for children younger than 8 to witness physical resolution to conflict, like a touch on the shoulder or a lost toy returned, because they don’t understand all the concepts in the language, according to Pirak. It is also helpful to teach young children the concept of empathy, and how their words and actions affect others, explains Kidder Davis. “The more you can do on relationship building with the other parent, resolving the conflict in as kind and gentle way as you can, the better example you set for your child,” Kidder Davis says.
Rules of engagement
If you decide to approach another parent over a conflict, Pirak suggests the following 5 steps:
1. Assume positive intent. “Nobody does dumb stuff on purpose. Whatever their action, they believe they are doing the best they can at the time,” says Lee Gentemann, a parent coach and child development specialist in Olympia. We are sometimes quick to judge another parent if their child is playing rough and they are slow to respond. “Try to take a giant step back,” advises Pirak. Assume the best.
2. Use a softened approach. Bring up an issue softly without blame or criticism, so the other person doesn’t feel threatened. If you initiate the conversation with a statement like “Your child just hit mine,” the other parent is immediately defensive, says Pirak. Kidder Davis recommends labeling an event without judgment. For example, “Our children both really like the same toy and they seem to be struggling with it a bit.”
3. Acknowledge different perspectives. There are always two sides of a story. For example, you might have observed another child hit your son, while the other parent saw her child hit in reaction to your son stealing a toy. Make sure you that you try to understand the other person’s perspective. According to Pirak, you might even ask, “How are you seeing this circumstance taking place?”
4. Repair along the way. If you say something offensive about the other person or their child, stop the conversation and apologize.
5. Try to find a solution that works for everyone. Kidder Davis suggests you look to the mom as the expert of her child. For example, “You know your child best. Do you have a suggestion for how we can resolve this without any tears?”
Jodi Sternoff Cohen is currently expanding this article into a book. To share anecdotes or advice on conflicts between parents, visit My Mommy Manners.