Care and Feeding

Not Their Mom

I watch my neighbor’s kids twice a week—and they’re terribly unruly. How much can I correct their unwelcome behaviors when they’re in my care?

Two girls pillow-fight in the background as a woman holds her head in her hands in distress.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by jentakespictures/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve recently agreed to watch my neighbor’s two girls (aged 7 and 9) after school two days a week, in addition to my own 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. But just two weeks in, I’m finding this challenging because the other two are clearly parented differently than my kids. My two are reasonably quiet; these two are usually loud and screaming in play or at each other. The neighbor’s girls speak cruelly to each other in a way that mine don’t (“I hate you,” “I don’t care if you get hurt,” etc.), and one or the other will also try to deliberately shut one of the four children out of the group, depending on who she’s feeling annoyed by that day. Because I can trust my own children within reasonable limits, I don’t tend to micromanage them when they’re playing, but I don’t allow these four to play together without my supervision.

If my own children were behaving so adversarial all the time, I’d feel like I have to constantly correct them. How do I know how much I can correct unwelcome behaviors, especially since these behaviors seem to be second nature to these kids? I’m not unwilling to be the bad guy, but I’d like everyone to have a good experience here.

—Just an Amateur

Dear JA,

As the adult authority figure here (like any teacher, babysitter, etc.), you have been charged with monitoring and guiding other people’s kids (without crossing any boundaries, of course). It seems you’ve had success with getting your own little ones to behave well, so you already have the tools to engage with these two—you just have to feel confident using them, because you’re no amateur! Trust yourself and your ability to actually serve as a caregiver to the neighbor kids, not just someone who’s around to make sure that no one sets the house on fire or leaves without supervision.

Explain to all four children what your expectations are for these twice-weekly play dates. Create standards and boundaries and stick to them. Consider posting a list of basic rules (“Use polite words only,” “Treat everyone with kindness”) and refer to them as necessary. When the girls misbehave, address them lovingly and firmly: “Sasha, you know that hitting your sister is not the right thing to do. Take a few minutes and think about what you should do when she makes you angry.”

Provide your neighbor with honest feedback about how her children have behaved each day when she comes to pick them up. If things do not improve over time, let her know that you may have to end this arrangement—perhaps her need for child care will push her to help resolve these issues over time. But first, you have to let the children know what you will and will not tolerate in your home.

—Jamilah