Answer: Nearly everyone has encountered this kind of situation at some time, and it is a delicate one. The answer to your question will depend on many factors, including how well you know the child and his parents, how severe his behavior is (especially whether it's potentially dangerous to others), how old the child is, and whether the lack of supervision is serious enough to constitute child neglect. Without knowing more details about the situation, I can only offer you some general.
If the child is on your property, it is perfectly acceptable to tell him what your house rules are and the consequences if he chooses not to follow them. For example, "You can play here as long as you don't hit or swear. If you break those rules I'll need to call your parents and take you home."
Also, let the boy's parents know your house rules and ask them to work with you in making sure that he follows them. It will seem less personal and less threatening if you simply explain that these are the rules you ask your children and all their friends to follow. (You could also suggest that the parents let you know if they ever have concerns about your children's behavior.)
Away from your property--at a neighborhood park, for example--you have less authority. But you still can express your concern about his behavior by using an "I" message rather than a "you" message. For example, "I really worry that you'll get hurt when you climb on that fence. How about if you climb on this jungle gym instead." He might even appreciate that someone is concerned about his safety.
I'd urge you also to express your concerns directly to the boy's parents, but in a way that is supportive. For example, "It's hard to keep up with kids this age. Is there a way I can help? How would you like me to respond if I see him getting into trouble?"
Finally, let the boy and his parents know when you see him doing well. A simple message can go a long way toward encouraging more positive behavior: "I really appreciated what a good sport he was when he played ball with the other kids today."
Taking a broader view, you might want to do what some others have done: convene a block meeting to set guidelines for how you all can work together to look out for the safety and well-being of the children of your neighborhood. In today's busy world, fortunate are the children who have adult neighbors who care enough to get involved.
Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
Note: Our authors are dedicated to honest, engaged, informed, intelligent, and open conversation about adoption. The opinions expressed here may not reflect the views of Adoption.com.