14 Tips for Parenting in Public
"How many times have you felt forced/nudged/shamed/coerced into parenting in a way you don't usually because you were in a public situation? I know I have, and it still happens now that my kids are out of the toddler tantrum stage."
"Where I struggle is under the judgmental gaze of grandparents who believe in PUNISHMENT and CONSEQUENCES when the line is crossed. I can almost hear a tsk, tsk as I do my empathic parenting. .. No matter how old I get, I still want parents' approval, you know?"
Parenting is always a challenge, but parenting in public, or under the critical gaze of extended family, can be some of the hardest moments.
Not only do we have to be extra creative to help our child cope in a way that doesn't infringe on the rights of others. We have to do it in front of an audience! An audience that we suspect is judging us as bad parents. It doesn't matter whether it's grandparents judging us as Permissive and Spoiling, or supermarket cashiers judging us as Lazy or Mean. If we were good parents, our child wouldn't be acting up to begin with. Right?
Actually, wrong. Even well-adjusted, wonderful children of parents we would all admire have their moments. I still remember the doozy of a tantrum my son had in the car when he was three, when we were driving with my dad and stepmom. I think they were actually surprised that my son turned out to be such a great kid. My insight from that experience? My son was in the right. I would have done things differently if we were alone. But because they were there, I compromised my own instincts, and didn't listen to my son. Sure, the grandparents thought they should outrank a toddler. But looking back 23 years, I see clearly that my son experienced my going along with them as a betrayal of our relationship.
Did my son come out ok? Yes, of course. As long as we're usually empathic with our kids, those failures of empathy are fine. In fact, he probably learned something about how we can repair rifts in relationships, and even about sticking up for himself. But as a result of that experience, and many, many stories I have heard from parents, I'm here to encourage you to stick to your parenting convictions, even in public, and even with grandparents.
Would your child be better behaved in public if you were a more authoritarian parent? Maybe. But we know that parenting style doesn't encourage healthy development and it only lasts for as long as you can physically control your child. Of course you need to set limits with your child, whether that's about jumping on Grandma's couch or running through a restaurant. But you can set limits without resorting to punishment. Instead of threatening kids with consequences if they don't behave, why not help your child become the kind of person who understands what behavior is appropriate, and who wants to behave that way?
1. Tend to basic needs.
Be pre-emptive. Don't take a tired, hungry child anywhere. Even if you're going to a meal, assume your child will be hungry before the food is served and bring snacks. If you're in the grocery store, head first to the foods you will let her eat, and choose something for her to snack on while you shop. Before you walk into Grandma's, let your child run and roughhouse outside for a few minutes, and pour your love into him while he giggles. The more connected he feels to you, the calmer he'll be, even when he gets over-stimulated by all the relatives.
2. Prepare your child.
Explain, even to a baby, what will be happening. Describe what you will do, and any expectations you have for your child's behavior.
"At Grandma's we hold hands and say a blessing, like this. During the blessing, only the person who is offering the blessing speaks. The rest of us will be quiet and listen."
3. Invite your child to contribute positively.
Describe the situation and explore with your child what kinds of contributions would be helpful.
"At the restaurant, the waiters are rushing around balancing food. How can we help them do a good job and not spill things?"
As you discuss visiting family or friends, practice hellos and goodbyes so your child is more comfortable with those often-tricky greetings.
4. Stay present to your child.
Often when children "act out" in public or when they're visiting relatives, it's because they feel our attention is elsewhere. That makes them a bit insecure, so they act out to get the reassurance that we're still attending to them. For instance, if you expect to spend an airplane flight relaxing, you can count on your child needing to interact with you fairly constantly. The more we can stay connected with a child, the less he will act out, always.
5. Find a way to involve your child.
It's simply not developmentally reasonable for a young child to watch quietly while you're in the hardware store. His job description is to learn about the world through hands-on exploration. So let him touch when you can, and ask him questions:
"Look at all the different sizes of screws... This is such a tiny screw.... what could it be used for?"
Let him help you find and test the screw driver you need, and pay the cashier. This will always take more time than if you just pull him along, but you'll finish the errand with a happier -- and more intellectually curious -- child.
6. When your child gets restless, don't ignore it.
Most of us get more anxious, and try to move faster. We say "We're almost done shopping ... be patient for a few more minutes." But a young child simply can't do that. She needs your help to get back in balance, so she doesn't fall apart. So instead of speeding up, start by slowing down and taking a deep breath. Then, take a minute to reconnect with her -- hug, make eye contact, sing to her softly, or twirl her around. That might be enough to shift your child's mood and give you time to complete your errand -- with both of you in a good mood!
7. Find ways to honor or redirect your child's impulses.
"You want to run! Let's go back outside the store for a few minutes to run, since you've been sitting in the car. Then, when we come back in the store, let's walk THIS way!"
Exaggerate your silly, slow walk, to get your child laughing. Laughter dissolves tension and creates more positivity.
8. Start with empathy and listen to your child before you jump in to problem solve.
Once a child feels heard and understood, she's more likely to be able to calm herself.
"You seem pretty mad ... What's going on?... So you're upset because your cousin said .... This is a tough problem .... You want X and your cousin wants Y .... I wonder how we can solve this?"
9. When possible, set your usual limits even when your child resists.
When your child wails "But I WANT the candy, I NEED it!" of course you acknowledge how much she wants it. But that doesn't mean you buy it, unless you want to buy it every time. Instead, you empathize and redirect her longing toward a food you feel good about her eating. She might screech the first four times, or even have a good cry that necessitates your leaving the store. Eventually, she will learn through experience that you don't buy the candy, but instead you'll buy her any fruit she wants.
An airplane, though, or any situation where you can't leave, is obviously not the time to let her have a good cry. So forget about long-term development (that's why you keep situations like planes and restaurants to a minimum during the early years) and go for distraction. If she wants to get up and run during takeoff, empathize:
"You want up! It's hard to wait."
Tell her when she can get what she wants: "As soon as the plane is in the air, you can get up!"
Tell her what she can do with that impulse: "Your body wants to move! Can you wiggle in your seat like this?"
Involve her in what's happening: "Look! we''re taking off! The plane is going up!"
Then distract. Pull out a special treat or small wrapped book or toy you brought just for this moment, "Look, a surprise! What's in it?"
10. Move your child to a more private place.
If your child has a meltdown, it's impossible to attend to him and also finish your shopping. Just scoop him up and remove him from the situation. Maybe you can go to your car, or to an out of the way spot at the mall where you won't be disturbing other people. Just as important, you won't be tempted to parent as onlookers think you should, so you can follow your own parenting instincts.
As always, empathize with how upset he is:
"You want to run around the aisles, but I need you to stay in the cart. I know it's hard to stay in the cart, but you can do this. Let's make it fun for you."
Feeling understood usually calms kids. When he's done crying, hold him and comfort him. If he's still awake, decide if the two of you are up for another try, and if so, how it can work for both of you.
"Maybe for the last bit of shopping, you can walk next to me and help me find things, and then sit in the cart again at the checkout."
11. Keep calming yourself.
Children can be expected to exhibit childish behavior. There's no shame in your child's needs clashing with the household need to get food for the family. The only possible embarrassment here is in responding to that clash by becoming a parent you don't want to be. So when you feel that happening, stop, take a deep breath, and shift gears. Use a mantra, like
"This isn't an emergency .... She's acting like a child because she is a child ... She needs my help to cope."
12. Come up with something to say to any onlookers who comment.
Mostly, you can ignore other people and just move your child to a more out of the way spot. But occasionally, a store clerk, or your mother-in-law, will try to intervene to distract your child. So it's best to prepare yourself with a standard answer that reassures that person that despite your wailing child, it's not an emergency and you don't need them to fix your child or anything else. Something like "He'll be okay ... We just need a little time alone."
13. Remember your first responsibility is to your child.
When your child is screaming on the airplane and all eyes are on you, naturally you want to control your child to keep her quiet, even if control isn't your usual approach. And yes, the other passengers on the plane have a right to a flight that isn't dominated by your little hellion. But focusing on them will just make you more anxious and undermine your ability to help your child. Until you help her with whatever problem is causing her to scream, she will probably keep screaming, so better to ignore everything but staying calm and connecting with your child. The truth is, the other passengers are much less interested in judging you than in having a quiet flight.
14. Assume the support of your audience.
In the same way that audiences root for performers to succeed, the people watching actually want you and your child to succeed. They know kids can be unpredictable and unreasonable. They may assume the situation would get resolved faster if you did it their way, but imagine how impressed the grandparents will be when they see your son pull himself together because you've empathized.
"Oh, Sweetie, you really wish you could have another cookie, I know! Tell me how many cookies you would like to eat? 10,000?! Oh my goodness, would you be as tall as the sky then?"
And what about the times when, inevitably, you're embarrassed about the way your child is behaving? You will probably want to have a quiet conversation with the grandparents at some point to explain why your parenting philosophy is going to raise emotionally intelligent grandchildren, and why punishment won't. But those strangers in the grocery store? You'll never see them again. Smile ruefully and say "Sometimes we all have bad days." Nobody can disagree with that.