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How to Discipline Children That Aren't Yours

I don't have children of my own, but my sisters are eighteen and twenty years younger than me, respectively, and I've worked in childcare and education. Interacting with other people's children is easy when they're angels, and challenging when they're ... well, normal.
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What's the best way to discipline children that are not yours? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.

Answer by Claire J. Vannette, former teacher, current big sister, on Quora.

I don't have children of my own, but my sisters are eighteen and twenty years younger than me, respectively, and I've worked in childcare and education. Interacting with other people's children is easy when they're angels, and challenging when they're ... well, normal. It all comes down to taking your cues from the parents.

Know the limits the parents want you to operate within.

What are they comfortable with you doing, and what do they want you to avoid doing? For example, if you're willing to spank, but the parents don't believe in spanking, their preference wins, hands down. If the parents say you spoke too harshly, moderate that. On the flipside, you're not obligated to discipline as much as they do. If they spank, and you're not comfortable spanking, opt out.

You don't have to wait passively for guidance; you could be proactive here and ask the parents about the role they'd like you to play and what they consider appropriate. For example, you could say, "When Sally misbehaved earlier, I wanted to say X, but I wasn't sure how you'd feel about that. What do you think?"

Follow the parents' priorities.

You may feel that a piece of bad behavior was astonishing and serious, while the parents might consider it no big deal. Expect this to happen a lot, actually. People without kids often have this idea that children ought to be perfectly silent, obedient, submissive, and polite. People with kids -- sane people, anyway -- are quickly disabused of such idealism. They don't sweat the small stuff. Pay attention to what the child's parents file under "small stuff."

If you blow every bit of sass out of proportion and treat every minor infraction like a capital offense, that doesn't actually help the child. It only helps you feel in control. Real talk: You will never have total control over a child, and if you try, you'll do terrible emotional damage to them. You will never get perfect behavior from a child, and if you expect that, you'll also do terrible emotional damage to them. They're imperfect and they're impulsive. Roll with it.

Understand the difference between disciplining a child and reacting to bad behavior.

Disciplining typically involves scolding and punishing. You might think those are your only options for responding to naughty children. They're not. You have another option: Simply reacting. Letting them see how their actions made you feel.

A friend of mine was a nanny for many years. One of her young charges, a toddler, was usually a sweet kid but would hit when angry. My friend's response was usually not discipline; it was to react with exaggerated distress: "Owww, that really hurt my arm! It makes me sad when you do that." This would trigger the child's empathy, and she'd immediately apologize and stop hitting. Will that work with all kids? Nope. But it will with some, and it's worth the attempt, because this approach actually teaches a meaningful underlying sense of morality, rather than mere fear of punishment.

If the parents are there, there's no need for you to discipline. But you can always react. Do keep in mind that dramatic reactions may be exactly what the child is seeking, and may end up encouraging more undesired behavior, so keep it calm if you can.

Putting it together.

The example you gave [in the original question on Quora], which is apparently supposed to show the "evil incarnate" attitude of a seven-year-old girl, was one sentence of sass. That's it. Was it rude? Of course. It merited a response. But it has me wondering if you're sweating the small stuff. Personally, I wouldn't have seen the need for discipline in response to that amount of rudeness; instead, I might have reacted by saying, "Hey, that was rude! What's up with that?" Mostly, though, I would have paid attention to the way her mother reacted and/or disciplined, and then discussed it with her later. What's her overall approach to rudeness and sass? How can I help? What should I absolutely not do? Learn a little and iterate. If you and she keep getting along, you'll have a lifetime to practice.

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