As my babies grew into toddlers, it didn’t take me long to notice how easily they could pick up bad habits from other children. It seemed as though it only took one instance of another child taking away a toy or hitting another child for my children to start doing it themselves. No, my kids are not angels, but being around other children has exposed them to adverse actions that they would not otherwise have been exposed to. Over time, I have learned a few principles that have enabled me to allow my children to spend time with other children without teaching them to emulate their less-than-desirable behavior.
1. Know when your children are ready to learn about disregarding their peers’ negative behavior. Though children need to be instructed in appropriate behavior from a young age, a 6-12 month old child cannot comprehend why another child may hit or take a toy while he may not. At this stage it is best to correct your child with a gentle voice and then get him involved in an activity or area where he won’t be directly exposed to the negative behavior of another child.
2. Don’t criticize other children to your child. Statements such as, “Sara is being bad, don’t do what she’s doing, or, “Just because he hits doesn’t mean you can,” are confusing to your toddler. Aside from setting a bad precedent for your child (i.e. it’s OK to talk bad about other people), criticizing another child in front of that child and/or his parent can be damaging to your relationships. Instead of criticizing, stay calm while ignoring the behavior of the offending child. If your child emulates a negative action, kindly remind him of your expectations. For example, “Remember, Johnny, we don’t hit.”
3. Discuss your expectations with your child before and after play dates, or other situations in which he is exposed to other children. It is especially important to reinforce your standards of behavior after a particularly troubling encounter with other children. For instance, if your child’s playmate laid on the floor and cried or hit his parent when he heard, “It’s time to go,” you can be sure that your child took it in and is probably asking himself, “I wonder if I could do that the next time my mom asks me to ________.” When our family is presented with a situation like this, I make sure to take the time to discuss it with my son afterwards. I might ask, “What did ______ do when her mother said it was time to go?” My son will think for a moment and then tell me what he observed. I will then ask, “Do you think that was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do?” He will again answer me and then we will talk about how he should act when I ask him to do something which he does not want to do. I do not feel like this discussion is a violation of principle #2, rather, I feel it is making the most of a teachable moment while encouraging appropriate behavior. Note: When discussing a situation with your child be sure that your discussion is focused on the BEHAVIOR of the child, not the child himself.
4. If necessary, talk to the parent or put an end to the play date. Though it is advantageous to your child to interact and play with other children, it may not be worth exposing your impressionable child to extremely bad behavior for the sake of having a “friend.” In the past, we have limited our son’s interaction with certain children who were very aggressive and disrespectful. Some may say, “But that’s not fair to him.” However, I say it’s not fair to continually expose my child to unruly behavior and then discipline him for emulating it.