I’m wondering if you can relate to this parenting dilemma that my sister had.

My sister was with her daughter, who is 15 months old and just learning how to walk. They were at a playground with lots of other moms and kids.

One of the older girls got mad and as she stomped around, the older girl shoved my niece, knocking her off her feet and onto the ground. Ouch!

My sister was not sure what to do.

When you see one child push another, how do you respond?

Do you correct other people’s children?

Do you try to protect the other kids from the upset child?

Situations like this are tough.

Being in a public setting makes things tougher… Kids and parents may not all know each other. And you can assume that parents at the playground have different parenting styles.

Here are some guidelines to help you smoothly navigate pushing in the park, or even in your own home.

Be mindful of your own feelings

Seeing your child get pushed by another child, will likely bring up some of your own feelings of concern, injustice, or even anger. Before you say or do anything, take a pause to notice what feelings are present for you. In the heat of the moment, it might be hard to take the time to notice and name your feelings, however this is an important step for responding consciously, rather than unconsciously reacting.

In Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says, “Naming for ourselves the emotions we feel can calm the amygdala… it affirms our capacity to reconsider knee jerk negative reactions to someone.”

Reframe your judgments

In these situations, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of judging and labeling children as a “bully”, “victim”, “mean girl”, “good girl”, etc. However, these types of labels are ultimately not very useful for understanding behavior and responding to kids to support their social development.

When I find myself labeling and judging others I reframe it. This is what Daniel Goleman calls “reappraisal” in his book Social Intelligence. He says, “by changing the meaning of what we see, we alter its emotional impact”.

Here are some of my favorite ways to reframe (or “reappraise”) a child’s behavior… I can say to myself: “This is how kids learn to get along” or “Anger is a cry for help”. I also reframe the situation by saying to myself,  “This is the most important thing I’m going to do today” (this last one is from our conference interview with Dr. Laura Markham).

Respond to your child

When comforting children our goal is attunement. Attunement is a fancy word for seeking to understand your child, giving your total attention and listening.

Daniel Goleman says that when we have a genuine connection with another person, we tune into their emotional state, rather than our own.

You may have lots of feelings if you find yourself in this situation–fear, shock, anger towards the other child–but responding to own child means paying attention to her feelings, rather than her own.

So what could attunement look like in “real life”?

If a child gets knocked down but doesn’t cry, she probably feels confused (“Why am I on the ground?”). You can say said, “You didn’t expect that to happen” or “That was a surprise” and help her up.

If a child gets knocked down and is sad or angry about it, you can tune in to their sadness or anger by saying, “You didn’t want to be pushed!” or “You didn’t like that!” or “That hurt your head. Ouch!”.

The important point here is that in order for a child to feel understood, seen and comforted, we tune into their feelings, rather than our own.

Protecting other kids

I feel really uncomfortable about correcting someone else’s child. However I might step in, if a child is not in control of herself or a parent is too far away, in order to protect other kids.

After being mindful of my feelings and reframing my judgements, I simply say to the child, “It’s ok to be mad, and I’m not willing for you to push”. I may even put my body between the child and others, if the situation warrants it, to protect other children.

It’s also a good idea to check in with the child’s parent. You can say, “I don’t know if you saw your daughter push another child so I told her, ‘I’m not willing for you to push.’ I hope that’s okay.”

Friendliness, understanding, and support towards other parents goes a long way and helps create the “village” that we all want for our kids.

Correcting the child

You might be thinking… But how will the other child learn not to push in the future?

Here’s something radical that came out in the child development research a few years ago…  babies have an inborn sense of morality and justice, and even babies value helping over harming. This means that kids already know not to push, hit, kick, name call, etc.

So, you might ask, if kids know hitting is wrong why do they do it?

The reason kids hit, kick, or push is  because they don’t know what else to do in the situation. They’ve exhausted their options. They are at the “end of their rope”. And they don’t have the brain development to control their feelings or think up new ways to solve their problem.

This doesn’t mean that us parents are helpless when kids hit, and that our only option is to wait for their brain to develop. No way! We can help support kid’s brain and social development in many ways.

One of the best way to support kid’s brain development is to talk about the situation, when they are calm. You can ask what happened for them, how they felt about it, how might the other child have felt about it, and think of different ways they can solve their problem.

In the meantime, have you had any experiences like this with pushing or hitting, in the playground or in your own home? How did you handle it? Inspire others by leaving a comment…

You can also prevent or plan ahead by using our Calming Plan for your child and the whole family.