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C & A with Brett Berk: Ok for relatives to discipline your kid?

Posted Dec 14 2008 10:22pm
A child is acting horribly bratty, throwing a huge tantrum, disrupting everyone's time together and the parents are doing absolutely nothing to handle the situation...

TMC:

A child is acting horribly bratty, throwing a huge tantrum, disrupting everyone's time together and the parents are doing absolutely nothing to handle the situation. Do other adult family members (grandparents, aunts/uncles) have the right to step in and discipline (verbally or physically, if the parents believe in spanking) their grandchild or niece/nephew?

Uncle Brett:

Disciplining other people's kids is always a touchy subject. Being a child development/parenting expert, a professional Uncle, and a loudmouth know-it-all, I often feel its my obligation to step in and lay down the law when my friends and family members are abdicating responsibility, or simply fouling up the job. But, despite the fact that I've published an entire book full of sound professional advice, that I consider discipline one of my prime areas of expertise, and that I know I could handle the situation better, I usually try to refrain from intervening in the moment. Why not step in? Well, mainly because of experience. I've found that if I insert myself, it almost always immediately makes things worse instead of better: if I don't have a great rapport with the kid, they often don't respond well; the parents frequently get embarrassed and defensive about why they weren't involved, and resentful of my appropriating their role; and the situation often ends up escalating instead of abating. Parents and kids have their own special (if diseased) relationship, and we outsiders often don't have all of the context for why they behave the way they do. If you're interested in helping, you need some of this back-story, and I've found that moments of conflict are not the best times for exploring or confronting it. If you really want to be a good friend or relative, I think the thing to do is to find another time after the poor behavior event, and ask questions, air your frustrations, and make your case and your suggestions then. Parents are much more capable of looking at their behavior (or lack thereof) when they're not standing with both feet deep in it.

That said, I don't always succeed in holding my tongue--particularly if the kid is being a real pain. And I certainly wouldn't stay in the background if a child were doing something that could potentially injure them or someone else. But no matter what, I would never hit a kid, mine or anyone else's; if you want to know why, feel free to look here or here.

*Brett Berk, M.S.Ed has worked with young children and families for over twenty years, and is the author of The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting (Random House, 2008). Visit him at www.askgayuncle.com

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