Discipline dealbreakers: When to drop the friend who spanks, yells... or does nothing

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When a friend yells a lot at her child, do you just chalk it up to parenting differences or do you say something?

New research on the possible hazards of physical punishment for kids reignited the spanking-versus-no spanking debate earlier this week. It can be hard enough to figure out the right way to raise your own kids -- what happens when your friends discipline their kids very differently?

We’ve heard about how Tiger Mom Amy Chua called her kids “lazy” and “pathetic” when they didn’t master a piano piece, and how the French raise better-behaved kids because they don’t hover at play dates. But for many of us, competing parenting styles hit much closer to home. Unfortunately, disciplinary differences can cause problems among friends and family -- especially if their brand of discipline (or lack thereof) freaks out your own kids.

She spanks, you don’t 

This week, a study in the Journal Pediatrics found that spanking as a form of punishment may increase the risk of mental disorders, like major depression, later in life. And while spanking is certainly controversial (the American Academy of Pediatrics is opposed to the practice), close to half of U.S. adults say they experienced some form of physical discipline when they were children.

So what’s the best way to handle a girlfriend or relative who gives their kid an occasional swat on the behind, when you’re not a fan of the practice?

Dr. Michele Borba, a TODAY parenting contributor and author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions," encourages folks to focus on their child’s reaction, and talk with them.

For example, she says, look carefully at how your child responds to another mother spanking her kid and ask your son or daughter, “How are you feeling? I notice you’re upset. Let’s talk about it.”  (Though, probably not within earshot of your mom-friend, unless you want to kiss that one goodbye.)

She yells… a lot

Of course, there’s a difference between shouting at your child when he tries to jam a pair of scissors into a socket, and the parent who just doesn’t seem to have another way of conversing with their offspring (ETHAN, HOLD YOUR JUICE WITH BOTH HANDS!!!!!). 

Dr. Borba warns parents that repeated yelling really does affect a child, and can end up making kids incredibly tense.

But bringing up discipline differences with friends is one thing, standing up to inter-family yellers (or spankers) is a whole different can of worms, because you’re usually stuck with your relative for the duration — so tread lightly.

“Discipline comes from how we were parented ourselves,” she explains. And if your sister-in-law is a yeller, for example, “Be careful of going against the grains of family dynasty. If you confront her about the way she parents, you could be setting yourself up for a tough relationship for the rest of your life.”  

Her kids rule your roost  

Watching kids run wild in their own house is never fun, but if the child is running amuck in your home, it’s always OK to gently but firmly draw appropriate boundaries. After all: your roost, your rules.

Dr. Alexandra Spessot is a psychiatrist in Durham, N.C., and she advises parents to address particular behavioral issues with other parents head-on, and avoid general comments like “George is so wild!”

“Be sure to explain the specific concern you have about the unruly behavior,” she says. “Something like, Caleb is trying to color on our wall again, and it took quite a while for us to clean those last time, would you mind helping him stop, please?”

But how do you know when it’s time to say sayonara to that mom-friend altogether? “Your kid should always come first,” says Dr. Borba. If your child consistently feels uncomfortable with another parent’s discipline style, it’s probably time to re-evaluate the relationship.

Better yet, maybe you can cut the kids out of the equation, and try the friendship in a different context — like a girls' night out for margaritas. Then you won’t have to worry about her disciplinary techniques, just whether or not she’s a lousy tipper.

Jacoba Urist is a lawyer, writer and mom in Manhattan. Her articles can be found on Forbes, MSN Money, The Atlantic & Newsweek/The Daily Beast. While she’s not a spanker or a yeller, and her son has never drawn on anyone else’s wall, some friends might say she’s guilty of under-disciplining on occasion. 

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