Should aunts and uncles discipline your child?
I’m often unsure of where the line is when it comes to disciplining the kids who call me 'aunty'. They’re screaming and their parent is exhausted, what do I do? Do I say stop? Do nothing?
Young girl scolded (iStock)
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Do we dare tell our nieces, nephews and our friend’s kids that they’re misbehaving? Or should we completely leave that up to the parent? 

I’m often unsure of where the line is when it comes to disciplining the kids who call me 'aunty'.

They’re screaming and their parent is exhausted, what do I do? Do I say stop? Do nothing?

Vincenzo Sinisi, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst from Cape Town, says it’s a good idea to speak to the kids' parents about how involved they want you to be in disciplining them.

'A harsh, authoritarian tone'

"If it were me, I’d be glad for the help and support that is given in kindness," says Sinisi. 

Sinisi points out that most parents are happy to have help in socialising their children, as long as it comes from a place of love and warmth:

"Adopting a harsh, authoritarian tone is likely to trigger a parent’s mama bear instincts, especially when it’s likely to fail and leave the children upset and more difficult to manage."

"Boundaries are always good, just that the aim is to introduce them in helpful ways," he continues. 

Sinisi advises using remedial stories to do this: "[It] can be one that you make up or one that you know and draw upon to prove a point." 

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Pinocchio’s nose

You could, if you are dealing with hitting, tell a story about Crabby Crab who pinched all his friends and then felt sad when they didn’t come to his birthday party and then needed to go around saying sorry.

Or you could draw on one you already know, e.g. "Remember how Pinocchio’s nose grew so long? Did I just see yours grow a bit?"

Age obviously plays a role here, this wouldn’t work on a preteen, but conveying a message without shaming or provoking defensiveness is a great way to get them to listen, and allows you to become a trusted adult in the process.

'Minds of their own'

"Children are not easy, they have minds of their own, are often self-centred, don’t necessarily behave in ways that we want and tend to push or ignore boundaries. This is absolutely normal," says Sinisi. But "healthy people are free spirited from start to end."

Sinisi, who is a father himself, knows that staying calm while a child misbehaves is not easy, so reinforce positive things to maintain boundaries. 

"Children respond better to distraction and positive suggestions. 'Stop doing that' is more likely to provoke a counter challenge and fail than 'Hey, you know what will be fun? Let’s do this…'"

"You are the aunt and not the playmate. Anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, offended, disrespected, hurt, pushed, frustrated, and so on; is too far."

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'No need for yelling'

Boundaries still need to be respected and there needs to be consequences to lines being crossed.

"Start by suggesting an alternative [like a quiet game]. If boundaries are still pushed, your aim is to communicate where the boundary is, that what they are doing isn’t working for you, or them, and to lay down a non-punitive consequence."

"For example: ‘John, I can see its fun/or that you are cross (show that you see them), but I feel sad when you shout at me like that and I will have to stop playing with you if do that," says Sinisi who also reminds us that the trick is to stay calm in this situation.

"There is no need for yelling. Remember, it’s a long game. One in which your aim is to preserve and develop a mutually respectful relationship," says Sinisi.

Should I say something if the kid misbehaves in front of me if their parent is there? What if they’re not there?

"If you feel that you need to speak up, you probably should. Remain kind and look to your friend for guidance as you do this. If you see horror on her face, back off," says Sinisi.

Sinisi also suggests getting their attention and explaining why their behaviour might be problematic and offer an alternative activity.

If it keeps happening, ask their parent if they agree to a consequence like being sent outside to play or to go to their bedroom instead. If you’re looking after them, Sinisi says the "rules of engagement" are up to you.

Your limits might be different. But don’t undo all your friend’s work by being too lenient as it’s important that adults have a united front and not contradict each other unless there are signs of abuse.

"If [the parents are] not there, remember you are helping them learn how to behave around others even when their parents are absent."

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Read more:

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