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How to Discipline a Friend’s Kid Without Losing a Friend

Parents watching a friend’s kid should talk first and then ask questions later.

As a parent, having friends who are also parents is awesome, and not just because the kids can play while the adults are swilling beers. Parent-friends can also share or defray childcare costs and provide helpful insights or feedback. All that said, there is one part of navigating relationships with parent-friends that can be particularly difficult: Dealing with their kids. At some point, these kids will likely be put in your custody and, a few minutes later, the trouble will start. And make no mistake, trouble between a child and that child’s parents’ friends is always awkward. The best bet is to treat the weirdness as an inevitability and be honest.

“There’s no obligation to allow other children to run amok in your house just because it’s not your kid,” says Dr. Larry Cohen, author of Playful Parenting. “It’s your stuff that’s going to break. It’s your kid that’s going to get hurt. You do have a say in the matter.”

Cohen is an interventionist, but he’s also a big fan of warnings — not for kids but for adults. He suggests that anyone about to be given responsibility for someone else’s bring up the possibility of discipline and try to articulate that specific rules are not flexible. This doesn’t have to be a confrontation. It can be totally matter-of-fact.

woman scolding kid at playground

Why don’t these conversations always happen? Because it feels like everyone is on the same page. But a feeling is not a reality. Parents who genuinely like each other, and each other’s kids, can still have very different approaches to correcting bad behavior. Discipline is, after all, a personal thing and nowhere near the top of the list of “stuff people talk about.” Most parents would prefer to talk about their kid’s triumphs and hilarious gaffes.

Conversations don’t need to be long — Cohen suggests simply agreeing that kids follow the rules of whatever house they’re in — but can be extended to address special circumstances and maybe even health concerns. If nothing else, this communicates a desire to do right by someone else’s child.

“It’s a balance between house rules and being more cautious and conservative because it’s not your kid,” says Cohen.

It’s important to note that there’s a difference between asking kids to uphold rules and responding punitively if they do not. The best approach, according to Cohen, is to explain and enforce the rules but avoid actually disciplining other people’s kids. Let them do that. Discipline is, as previously noted, more of a family issue anyway. Kids get that. Which makes that explanation the parental go-to when they inevitably have to discipline their own kid when a friend is over.

This also allows caretakers to sidestep one potential pitfall: Being the mean adult.

“You weren’t mean, you just enforced the rules,” Cohen says. “If correction or rule enforcement is the first conversation you’re having that will be awkward. You will have wanted to have some background.”

But the communication comes after the visit as well. Debriefing allows parent-friends to troubleshoot and clarify rules for the future. This eventually turns pals into a team. But Cohen reminds parents not to sweat it if they mess up.

“Don’t worry about making a mistake. It’s an ongoing process. Like parenting.”