Is it ever OK to discipline someone else’s child? Of course it is! Being the boss of littler people is practically one of the only good things about adulting.
In all seriousness, there seems to be a fair bit of contention about whether or not it’s OK to tell a child to check themselves lest they wreck themselves when that child is not the fruit of your own loins. I’m solidly on team disciplining other people’s kids, just as I support the people who might have my back in public and discipline my own child when she starts to crank it up to 11 and I might not, for some reason, be able to do it myself. But when to do it?
Take it from someone who has told a fair share of strangers’ kids to act right: For everything there is a season. A season to keep your mouth shut, and a season to tell someone else’s kid to knock that ish off, and this is when it’s cool to do so:
1. If they’re about to do themselves bodily harm.
Example: A bunch of kids are about to go get some serious cuddles from the frothy-mouthed raccoon chilling on your dumpsters in broad daylight.
Seriously, if the only thing standing between a child and their inevitable decapitation is you shouting, “NO THANK YOU FRIEND!!” as you race toward them in your jammie pants, it’s time to stop thinking about what’s awkward and think about whether you want a kid’s blood on your hands when you could have put a stop to it. Also spare a thought for your liability insurance, which probably doesn’t cover “rabid raccoon maulings.” Don’t let a kid get natural-selected on your watch.
2. If they’re about to do someone else bodily harm.
Example: The neighbor children have decided to find out if people really can’t fly, using a younger sibling as a test subject, or if Mom just told them that because adults suck and are boring.
You know what (most) older kids suck at? Not going f***ing bananas on the playground after school, even if little kids are around. There is a dark place in hell for the parents who stand by and do nothing while an older child unwittingly clotheslines the adorable toddler waiting nicely in line for the slide. Speak up.
3. If they are being cruel.
Example: The common area at your apartment building has become a horrifying mix of Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies, with one poor sucker at the middle of it all.
Mob mentality has nothing on a group of middle schoolers. They can sniff out insecurities and jab with searing insults from a surprisingly young age, and it’s easy for everyone to join in on the awfulness. If you see kids being nasty, know that they’re kids and will hopefully look back on their cruelty with cringey regret, but at least stick up for the other kid who’s bearing the brunt of everyone else’s psycho-sexual adolescent renaissance. Then say a prayer of thanks that you never have to be 13 again.
4. If they’re about to get it way worse from someone else.
Example: The kids next to you in the theater are bored during the previews and currently hosting a fart contest, and the elderly couple two rows in front of you is shooting dirty looks and trying to flag down a manager.
Hey, here’s another thing kids suck at: sitting still and being quiet. That’s cool, but if you’re in a place where you know they could get kicked out or day-ruined for being obnoxious hellbeasts, maybe shoot them a warning, so that things don’t turn ugly.
5. When their actual parents have their hands way full.
Example: At the county fair, where Mom is grappling with a hungry baby, her boobs a-floppin’, her toddler makes a break for freedom, tearing his pants off as he flies past the bull pen.
Kids play by themselves. Sometimes, that’s on the apartment basketball court. Sometimes, it’s in the tampon aisle of Target, where they are currently launching “tampon missiles” into the diuretics and laxatives aisle because they know the adult in their life has the flu and can barely stand up in the pharmacy line and can’t do shit about it right now. Go be a helper.
6. When you’re in charge of keeping them alive.
Example: The hellscape known as the “school field trip.”
When kids are in your charge, don’t wring your hands and worry if little Timmy will go home and tell his mommy you were mean to him. Keep them alive and treat them like your own, which means shooting them death glares or giving gentle redirection or whatever it is you do to keep your own kid breathing. If little Timmy’s parents don’t like it, guess what? You’re off the hook and that kid never needs to come to your house or on your field trip again, which is basically a win.
Obviously there’s never a reason to hit or berate or swear at or terrify a kid, but sometimes it’s necessary to go make it weird by being the mean neighbor lady or the one kids whisper “that’s so-and-so’s mom” about when you pass.
Of course, the river flows both ways, and if you want to be the mean mom, like I am, you’re going to have to not freak out if someone tells your child to stop acting a damn fool sometimes.
It truly takes a village.