Kids behaving badly during holidays: Is it ever OK to parent other people's children?

The holidays come with a lot of obligatory togetherness. What do you do if your family's or friends' kids are getting under your skin? Author Julie Klam and two specialists offer advice for how to approach – or not – friends and family when their kids misbehave.

Michael Schennum, The Arizona Republic/AP/File
Youngsters play in a class at Valley Child Care and Learning Center in Glendale, Ariz. in this 2008 file photo.
Sarah Shatz/Riverhead/AP
Julie Klam, author of 'Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can't Live Without,' offers suggestions for how to maintain friendships with friends and family members, even when their kids drive you nuts.

He's the toddler who always bites. She's the 6-year-old drama queen prone to "it's mine" fits and hair-pulling. The problem, for you anyway, is they belong to your best friend, your neighbor, or your exceedingly lenient big sister.

With the holidays comes togetherness, sometimes thrust upon us. And with togetherness, especially the obligatory kind, comes major stress – for you and your kids. But friction over the offspring of loved ones strikes all year-round, leading the grown-ups to ponder whether their adult relationships are worth it.

Julie Klam, a Manhattan mom and author of the new book "Friendkeeping," believes middle ground is possible.

"Do the best you can to see them without their children, but when they are around, take the anthropologist's point of view: 'Hmm, that's interesting that the kid is standing on a table throwing cheese at the wall,' instead of getting wound up in it," she said.

Looking for the worst in other people's kids, and by association other people's parenting prowess, is a road to nowhere, which may be where you land when things go dangerously wrong. But seriously troubled is different than the day-to-day grind of ill-mannered, bad-tempered kids, and their parents who stand around and let it happen, by design or otherwise.

"If you're in your head keeping score of how rude they are, or whatever the things are that happen, it makes it much worse," said Ms. Klam, who has a 10-year-old daughter.

Klam found herself putting distance between her and a mom friend when the kids were about 18 months old.

"She just never limited her kid's physical thing, and it was a lot of the kind parenting of 'Use your words,' and the kid was flinging books really hard at my kid. My way is pick 'em up and take 'em out of there. We could not hang out with the kids together at all."

Deciding when to cut and run for the sake of your own sanity and the well-being of your children obviously depends on how deep the adult friendships go or how much the kin ties matter. And sometimes, it's not easy making a clean break even with the merest of mommy acquaintances because of proximity. They're in the park, at the play group, live next door.

Either way, before you take the fatal step of severing ties, "Stop and try to figure out how much of this has to do with you and how much has to do with them," Klam suggested.

And keep in mind, she urged, that a seemingly out-of-control 3-year-old may mature into an angelic 8.

Anastasia Gavalas, a family coach, educational consultant, and mom of five in Bridgehampton, N.Y., dares cross the line some parents will not trod upon: disciplining other people's children.

Her's is the big, fun house with the pool, the spacious backyard, and the recreational basement. She gets a lot of young visitors, including two tween boys – one a relative and one a friend – who were instrumental in destroying her $3,000 leather couch during a party about a year ago.

"To me it wasn't about yelling and saying what did you do to my couch," she said. "It was more about if you are going to come here you need to respect my things and that's it, whether you're 5 years old or 15 years old or 50 years old, so it was more about a teaching opportunity."

Among her parent-clients, broken ties due to the kids bubble up frequently: "I hear it a lot. I hear the, 'My sister told me that my child isn't smart so I'm not talking to her. My friend told me that my son is a brat so I'm not hanging out with her anymore.'"

Leslie Sexer, director of clinical and outreach services for Family Centers, a nonprofit provider of counseling and other services in Fairfield County, Conn., said holiday gatherings unravel the most stoic adults, so take that into consideration with kids.

"If you feel that you must step in to correct a behavior, be helpful and kind and do not shame, criticize, or judge," she said. "Not all kids are wired to handle large gatherings well, or they may have ongoing issues that interfere with the behavior you expect."

Can't manage it yourself? "Quietly pull the child's parent aside and ask if they can intervene," Sexer said. "Present it positively: 'You know your child best. It looks like he needs some help with ...'"

Keep expectations reasonable. "You are not living in a Norman Rockwell painting," Sexer said. "Life is messy, and your gathering is temporary."

Ms. Gavalis said some parents are giddy that she's willing to step in when their kids misbehave, "which I think is part of the problem because they need to take the responsibility instead of, 'Can you help me? Can you fix it?'"

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