Parenting expert on whether it's acceptable to discipline another person's child

Is it ever acceptable to discipline a child who is not your own?

Parents, you've all been there: you're at the playground when the monkey business gets a little out of hand and suddenly, you're faced with the prospect of parenting a random kid, whose actual parents are nowhere to be seen. 

It's a seemingly lose-lose situation: approaching the parent might see your face in a viral video with the caption, "This stranger tried to tell me how to parent MY child in public", while intervening directly risks upsetting the child and their parent. Whisking your little one anyway without a word also doesn't seem fair, especially if the other child's behaviour was unacceptable (queue Supernanny) - justice must be served, after all. 

What are your options? According to Dr Justin Coulson, a parenting expert and author from Queensland, there are typically three approaches - and which one you opt for will depend on a number of factors, as no two scenarios will be the same. 

Whatever the case, you should never physically discipline or threaten another person's child: think about how you would react if someone harmed or frightened your own child, and take the same stance when considering your actions towards the other involved.

Dr Coulson appeared on The Project New Zealand on Friday following the publication of his article addressing the subject on Kidspot, providing some much-needed advice on handling this particularly sticky situation.

Firstly, he notes that if you've ever been on the receiving end of a public telling-off for your child's behaviour, it's understandable that being reprimanded by a stranger would get your back up. 

"We want to look like we are good parents: when someone comes up to us and says our kid is doing something that isn't socially appropriate, it's really easy to get defensive. Frankly, no one likes being told what to do, especially being corrected in public about their kids - it's such a tough issue," Coulson told The Project. 

If you want to approach the parent or caregiver to address their child's behaviour, you need to understand that they might become defensive and therefore their response to the situation might not be the most productive, Coulson noted.

In this instance, approaching the conversation as tactfully and calmly as possible is imperative, as well as using language that doesn't place blame or come across as confrontational. For example, you could suggest intervening as a team, rather than ordering the parent to take responsibility for their child. 

"If you take this route, we want to state, very softly, something like this: 'Our two kids seem to be struggling at the moment, I thought if we approached them together we might be able to help'," Dr Coulson advised. 

"It can be really tricky, and this is why I generally discourage approaching the other parent. There's not going to be an answer for every situation, so you've got to be discerning. If they look like they're going to be pretty reasonable, give it a go."

In his article, he also suggested opening with: "I'm sorry to bother you. It seems that your child is a little upset. He/she has been hurting some of the kids in the playground. I thought I should just come over and let you know."

Crestfallen crying boy sitting at the park covering his face - stock photo
Photo credit: Getty Images

The second option is approaching the child, but once again, addressing the children as a group rather than singling out the one troublemaker is usually a better bet to keep the peace.

"The second approach is that you can go to the child: you need to be really careful that you don't come in all guns-blazing. If the parent is across the park and sees what you're doing, it's likely going to escalate. I recommend going in with, 'Hey guys, is everything okay?'" Coulson suggested. 

Intervening is the third and final option, but the expert recommends only doing so if the situation has escalated or has become physical. Intervening must be done with caution as to not inflame things further, he said, adding you must also do everything you can to avoid touching the other person's child - which would only add more fuel to the fire. 

"I really only recommend this if things have really escalated and become physical. It's best to just get in, get your child, and move to another place. Do everything you can to avoid touching the other person's child - otherwise, again, you usually end up with an unhappy escalation."

Watch the video above.