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What to do When Your Child Misbehaves in Public

We all know that dealing with our children’s misbehavior at home is difficult, but most of us would agree that dealing with our children’s misbehavior in public is the worst.  It’s not easy for the even the most peaceful parents to remain calm when their child is misbehaving within eyesight and earshot of others.

Not only can it be embarrassing when our children misbehave in public, but when we’re out and about we are usually trying to accomplish a task that would be easier to finish if our child would just save his or her bad attitude or big feelings for another time.

When our children misbehave in public we feel the combined effects of frustration and damaged pride.  We have to stop what we’re doing to deal with the behavior while we and our children are left open to judgement by on-lookers.

This combination of frustration and embarrassment causes many parents to be jerks to their children in public.  Sure that’s strong wording, but it’s true.  I have been a jerk to my child in public and I bet you have, too.  Some parents don’t try to deal with their children in public any other way and the rest of us suffer great guilt over the times we’ve lost it with our children in public.

Parents Feel Pressured to Win the Battle in Public

I remember my oldest son’s first tantrum in public.  He was about 16 months old and hadn’t had too many tantrums at that point.  In other words, I was a newbie when it came to dealing with tantrums.  The tantrum was over a bag of bread that was at the top of the loaded grocery cart and within his reach from where he sat.  He reached it and immediately began to squish it.

Now at this point I had three choices.  I could be permissive and let him squish the bread.  I could take the bread from him.  I could distract him with something else and swiftly remove the bread.  Well, unfortunately, I panicked because the bread was being squished.  (I know!  I told him “No-no!” and I took the bread from him.

He screeched.

Everyone stared.

It felt as if time had stopped and everyone on the aisle was looking at me to see if I would exert some control over my off-spring.  Not wanting anyone to think that I was at the mercy of this tiny tyrant, I told my baby-child that I was not moving the cart until he stopped screeching. 

Oh, yes I did. Wasn’t I cute?  All new and shiny.

So, I parked that cart and waited.  And he tilted his head back and screamed.  A few air-raid-siren screams later, he won and I lost.  I pushed the cart quickly to the next aisle with my head down, avoiding the stares of strangers.

What must these people think of me?  I let him win.  To have other parents witness my lack of control over my child was mortifying.  I was angry with myself and angry with my child.  And truth is that if I had simply distracted him in the first place we would have gone peacefully on our way.  Live and learn.

My point is that I see this all the time.  I see parents who turn either permissive or authoritarian when they have an audience.  I see parents who let their child get away with anything in order to avoid conflict in front of others and parents who are overly harsh to their children if others are watching.  (I do find in my personal experience, contrary to the opinion pieces floating around Facebook lately, that most of the time parents are overly harsh with their children in public.)

Tips for Dealing with Misbehavior in Public

We want to avoid the embarrassment that comes with disciplining children in public places.  Sometimes we lose our values in the fear.  Here are some things I’ve learned about parenting in public:

  • Those people staring at you are rude are just glad it’s not them.  Most of us have been there, we feel that pain in the same way a nursing mother feels the cries of someone else’s baby leaking through her breast pads.  You are not being judged as much as you think you are.
  • Never sacrifice your relationship with your child by using some “discipline” tactic such as spanking, yelling or threatening just because others are watching.  The only people in the room that matter in the heat of a stand-off between you and your child are you and your child. Don’t be too harsh or too permissive for the sake of others.
  • Be proactive.  I could do an entire post on proactive parenting (and probably will).  The best way to avoid a tantrum is to avoid tantrum triggers.  Is your child hungry?  Well, for the sake of heaven and all things holy feed them immediately!  If you’re going grocery shopping, bring a snack.  If you’re going to a function that requires them to sit quietly, bring a coloring book.  Set the rules before you enter the place you are going.  If I tell my children “no candy or toys” before we walk into the toy-and-candy-on-every-aisle-store, then they already know not to ask or that if they do my answer will be no.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away.  Leave your cart and walk outside with your child until he or she calms down or, if you’ve already made this a rule, leave the store and go home.  Preserving your relationship with your child and not losing yourself to embarrassment-driven permissive or authoritarian parenting is more important than whatever it is you needed to buy.

Are you sensing a theme here?  Relationship, relationship, relationship.  You have no responsibility to the on-lookers.  You only have a responsibility to your child to provide swift, consistent discipline that is firm, yet gentle and loving, in whatever setting you may be.

Resources for Dealing with Tantrums

Dealing with Tantrums

 How to Stop TantrumsHow to Handle Tantrums in PublicHow to Yell Less at Your Children

How to Deal with Misbehavior in Public

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