14 of the Trickiest Parenting Etiquette Dilemmas and How to Handle Them

No, you can't yell at random kids in the playground, yes you can enforce good behavior on play dates. Here, parenting and etiquette pros help you handle unruly kids, overbearing grandparents, and other sticky situations.

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It's your daughter's birthday, and you don't want to invite the entire class

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While it is unkind to leave out two or three kids from a group of 25 classmates, inviting only two or three may be easier to understand, says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. But it's still important to be polite and discreet: mail invitations, email the parent, or call directly instead of sticking the invites in your child's book bag. You don't want to ask your child to keep it a secret, but you can explain to older kids that it's a small party, and you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, suggests Gottsman. And if you do get a call from a hurt mom asking why her child was left off the guest list, respond with a simple, honest answer, for example, "We had a small gathering with family and a couple of friends. Julie loves Tara and it was not an intentional slight." (Here are 50 etiquette rules you should always practice.)

Your child opens a present she isn't excited about... and shows it

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Everyone hears your kid ask loud and clear if she can return it, including Aunt Sue. Now Aunt Sue is embarrassed and you're mortified. You're way beyond shushing at this point, so instead acknowledge in a way that shows the gift-giver you understand your little one's response wasn't appropriate, suggests Susan Bartell, child and parenting psychologist and author in New York City. Say something like: "You're right, you do have that toy already. Sometimes when people give you a gift, they don't know exactly what you have and want, but you can still appreciate it and say thank you." Tell your child she can exchange it, and then let Aunt Sue know what she picked instead. Here's more advice on how to raise a gracious child.

You host a play date, and your pint-sized guest acts up

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Even if the little brat pushes your last button, you can't yell, punish, or put your hands on another child. But what you can—and should—do is enforce your house rules, says Bartell. Structure what you consider appropriate behavior for both your child and his guest; tell them that "in our family, we don't hit," and that if they have a hard time, you'll have to separate them. When the parent comes to collect her spawn, tell her what happened, but tread lightly: "Don't blame the other kid fully; instead frame it as how your child perceived it," offers Bartell. "You could say: 'We had a little bit of a hard time. Johnny told me Sam was hitting him. I'm not sure if Sam really was, but I watched for the rest of the time to make sure there was no hitting.' If it's your kiddo who's being the tyrant, here's advice for handling bratty kid behaviors.

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Your son is invited to a play date, but doesn't want to go

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A simple "thanks for the offer, but it's a bad day," or "I appreciate the invite, but we need to pass" are reasonable, polite ways to say no, says Gottsman. But if the parent persists, be frank, saying, "It seems my son isn't comfortable coming over right now, so let's let some time pass. Thanks for understanding." If you are the one not comfortable, however—perhaps you heard his friend is a little wild or aren't sure how attentive his parents are—suggest they play at your house instead, says Carolyn Meyer-Wartels, clinical social worker and parenting expert. That way, you can observe for yourself, and step in if needed.

Your family, neighbors, and even strangers on the supermarket line have opinions on how you should feed, sleep train, and care for your new infant

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As unsolicited as the advice may be, it's likely coming from well-meaning places: maybe they're reflecting on how they reared their own children, see it as sharing experiences, or they just want to help, be involved, and feel needed. Be gracious with the barrage of baby advice, but remain confident in your own choices. "I have never met a mother whose gut instinct was wrong," says Bartell, who has worked with thousands of parents over 25 years. To help maintain that "gracious" part, commit these phrases to your arsenal of responses, suggests Beverly Randolph, etiquette expert and director of The Protocol School of Indianapolis: "Thank you, I appreciate the advice," "We will consider that," and, "We love your care and concern." Smile and be kind, but be clear, especially if they push: "I know I don't know everything about parenting, but I want to figure some things out on my own and do what I feel best for my child."

Your mother constantly criticizes your approach to parenting

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Though there are many family dynamics in play, it's often the grandparents who are very involved in their grandchildren's lives who tend to comment, says Bartell. If a grandparent who sees your kids more rarely than often is overly critical about your parenting choices, listen politely, offer a tactful, "OK", and then go about doing your own thing. But comments that come from your mom who often babysits, or your mother-in-law who picks up your little one from school a few days a week, deserve more credence, says Bartell. Maybe your kid doesn't listen to the grandparent, or whines all the time. Have the conversation, and even if ultimately you don't agree, be respectful of their feedback. Try saying something like, "What you're saying makes sense, and maybe I'll try it sometime, but this is why I choose to do it this way."

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You have a dinner party and your friends let their kids run amok

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If the kids are banging into furniture or yelling and screaming and their parents are allowing it, you can try to first talk to the kids as a group about good behavior, and discipline them as a group if needed, suggests Bartell. Say to everyone (your kids and theirs and their parents in earshot), "Let's stop running around. I'll put on a movie, and you all need to go sit down quietly." If your stuff is getting destroyed or kids are getting hurt, speak up to the parent, saying, "Sam just pinched Emily. Would you like to handle it, or should I?"

Your child tells you someone at school—whose parent you know—bullied him

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Step one is to take a breath, and then ask more questions. "Try to really understand what happened and get the whole story before you react," says Meyer-Wartels. If there's real bullying going on, it's important to get the school involved so your kid knows he's not alone. Problem solve or role play with your child as well to help him figure out what he feels comfortable doing if the situation arises, she adds; his tool could be to walk away, say something to his teacher, or go to a safe zone. What you should not do is go to the parent. "I really don't recommend it, and never found that works," says Meyer-Wartels. Some parents may stand by their kids in a very defensive way; others might throw their kids under the bus, in a sense, go home and yell and scream about it, neither of which is helpful, she explains.

You made a not-nice comment about someone, and your kid repeated it with all parties present

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As mortified as you may feel, admit you spoke in haste or in a moment of weakness and apologize—both publicly in front of your child, and privately to the person you undoubtedly offended. And when it's just you and your little one, explain that you made a mistake and that it's never good to speak poorly about someone, suggests Randolph. Turn the awkward moment into a teachable one. And for future reference: Your kids are sponges. (Here's how to recover after making a bad first impression.)

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Bigger kids aren't playing nice with little ones

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You're watching a group of older kids monopolize the swings in the school yard, or push past your youngster on the kiddie slide. You could try to gently ask for a little courtesy: "Little ones are playing on the slide, would you mind moving over to the big kid slide?'" If they sass back, bite your tongue and take your kid to another spot, suggests Bartell. You don't know the kids, and even if their parents are there, you have no idea how they'll respond, so it's best to just move yourself and your child away.

Yours is the one having the tantrum at the restaurant

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"Aaaaannd this is why we never go out to dinner," may cross your mind, but you're there and have to deal. Look at it as an opportunity to teach your little one about your values; explain that you're in a public place, other people are around, and he needs be quieter, says Meyer-Wartels. "Frame it positively at first: tell him you want to hear what he has to say, but he has to say it in a voice that won't disturb the room." If the carrying on continues, make it clear that if he doesn't lower voice, you all have to leave. Now the critical part: actually leaving. You know actions speak louder than words; and when you say "either your voice gets lower or we have to go," follow through and pack it up.

Your little one has a runny nose and party to attend

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Trust your instinct, says Randolph. Of course, if your child has a fever, is nauseous, or has been up all night coughing and sneezing, you know to look past the sheer devastation on her face and keep her home. But if you use your best judgment and feel your little one is well enough to join in the festivities, take her. And say exactly that if a fellow attendee comments on the snot dripping from her nose: "Isabella was looking forward to this day for a while, and I felt like she was OK to come," or, if you know it's her allergies acting up, assure the parent not to worry.

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Someone asks: Isn't your only child lonely? Or how can you give all four of your kids enough attention?

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Before you get defensive, consider that most likely, your new acquaintance is not trying to be rude or offend you, says Randolph; it could just be a combination of curiosity and a lack of a filter. Have a conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of having one, or several kids, if you feel comfortable, suggests Meyer-Wartels. Your only child may feel more lonely sometimes, but he gets lots of love and attention at home and you involve him in activities so he can interact and socialize. Or with several children, the kids may not get as much individualized attention, but perhaps you are intentional about seeking opportunities to spend alone time with each one, and they have built-in playmates, etc. If, however, you feel like the comment is critical or condescending, say so—no need to elaborate any further.

Your toddler just got potty trained, really has to go, and there's no bathroom in sight

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Find a bush and let them go, says Bartell. Not ideal, of course, but for little ones who are just learning to hold it in, having an accident can be demoralizing. Explain that this is an emergency-only situation, so that it doesn't become a game, adds Bartell. And because you can almost count on Mother Nature to call at the most inconvenient times, stash a portable potty in your car, just in case.


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