“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly advice column in which Fatherly’s Parenting Editor Patrick Coleman provides frank answers to reader questions. Want evidence-based answers and some common sense morality? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We got you. Want a justification for some parenting decision you already made? Ask someone else. Patrick is busy.
Is it ever okay to yell at someone else’s kid? Because the other day we had some people over for my daughters 3-year-old birthday party. It wasn’t a drop-off party so there were a buncha parents and kids hanging out. It was pretty crazy and loud and I think I was stressed out by it. But then after cake, a four-year-old boy got into it with my daughter over a toy that she just unwrapped. We were trying to get in there and break it up but then this boy just bites my daughter on her shoulder really hard. And obviously she screams and starts to cry, so I pull her away from the kid and I yelled no at him really loud and said something like, never bite people! And then the boy starts crying because I scared him pretty good, so his mom starts yelling at me and I’m the bad guy!
Anyway, the mom is a friend of my wife’s so now my wife is pissed at me. But did I really do anything wrong? I didn’t hit the kid or anything and I never would. But he was hurting my daughter. So isn’t okay to yell at a kid sometimes? Even if they aren’t your own? What are the rules?
Look, in a perfect world, you would have made the “no biting” house rules clear to all of the parents attending the party. When your daughter was bitten, you would have had the emotional wherewithal to simply remove her from the situation, quietly alert the mother of the biter and then care for your own injured child. But it appears you are a human male of the father variety and like the vast majority of your kind you are not perfect. Welcome to the club.
In the chaotic situation you describe, it’s likely you were already slightly agitated. So, it’s not particularly surprising that the biting would set you off. Yelling is a biological response connected to flight or fight, it’s a way to alert the tribe of danger. At the moment of the bite, your daughter wasn’t being attacked by a mountain lion, but your primal brain sure as heck believed that was happening.
And as a protective dad, I’m also certain that you scared the crap out of the little biter. Unfortunately, your own protective response triggered the mother’s protective response resulting in the nasty scene that occurred. But I don’t think that you traumatized the kid or anything.
So here’s the big problem: How do you help repair all the bad feelings? Well, this is one of those time in life where you’ll have to apologize despite the fact that you’ve done nothing, technically, wrong. Here’s how I suggest you do that.
Invite the biter and his mom over for a playdate with your daughter. I know it sounds crazy but there are some good reasons for this. First off, asking them back helps everyone (your daughter, the biter, the biter’s mom, and your wife) understand that second chances are important. The invitation is an olive branch. It’s saying: let’s have a do-over in a more stable environment.
When mom and biter arrive, be warm. Be friendly. And then when the kids are set up, apologize to the mom for yelling at her kid. You don’t need to throw in any caveats about how you were trying to protect your daughter, just apologize, sincerely. And then, ask her if you can talk with her son and explain why you yelled. You’ll be doing him a huge service. It will be incredibly good for him to see a big man admit he made a mistake. It might help him build empathy or soothe any residual guilt. I know he’s not your kid, but he’s a kid in your orbit. And parenting should never just be about our own kids. We need to look out for each other or it gets far more lonely and difficult than it has to be.
Once it’s all over and everybody has shaken hands and hugged it out, put it in the past and get on with your life. Just keep the yelling to a minimum.