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July/August 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 6

Discipline - The Public Tantrum

By Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney of PARENTS Magazine, August 1997

(To view it in the archives of Parents Magazine - Click Here!)

Ever wonder why your child seems to save his rudest behavior for when you're in public? Well, the next time your 3-year-old throw herself on the floor, kicking and screaming, or your 7-year-old decides it's cool to use a curse word, stop and sk yourself a different question: If you weren't out in public, would you really be so upset?

Most parents don't expect their children to behave like good little puppets. Kids are naturally curious, spontaneous , restless, and often don't realize when they're being difficult. Young children, in particular, don't see a problem with asking strangers the most personal questions or making cutting observations -- like the 3-year-old who told his aunt that her perfume smelled like old cheese.

When kids act up at home, whether it's a temper tantrum or a fresh mouth, parents can usually handle it calmly. Most important, they don't take it personally -- making discipline a less emotional issue. In public, however, parents may feel like they're being judged by their child's behavior ... and often they are.

There is an unspoken expectation by many people that when children are in public, they should act like little adults. This expectation is ludicrous, of course, but the myth of the well-behaved child is pervasive, especially with adults who are not used to being around kids. Sometimes older people whose own children are grown have forgotten what kids are like. I've heard grandparents complain heartily about restless toddlers, making statements like, "He never sits still!" or, "She makes so much noise!" or even, "Kids today are so much ruder."

Clearly, they've forgotten that these behaviors are normal for young children. But that's not your problem. Your job is to teach your child to behave appropriately -- not to behave like an adult. So the next time your child makes you cringe in public (and there will be a next time), here are some ways to keep your cool -- and your perspective.

Kids behave like kids

Perhaps nothing is more embarrassing than a child who imposes her disruptive behavior on innocent by-standards: There's the loud 1-year-old on the crowded bust, the restless toddler in the checkout line, the obstinate preschooler who won't leave the toy store. It's always uncomfortable when your child is the source of aggravation to those around you.

You know people are annoyed ,and you feel like everybody thinks you're and inept parent because you can't control your child.

It's easy to buy into the guilt that others try to impose on you. You don't want your child to be a problem aby more than they do. But unlike the people around you, you have the primary responsibility for the well-being and upbringing of your child. Sure, life would be easier for everyone if you could avoid situations that are hard for small children to handle -- if you never took them on a train or a plane, never brought them to the supermarket or the mall. But this is the real world, who you want to minimize the damage. And when all else fails, you can silently repeat the mantra, "I don't know these people, and I'll never see them agin."

Diplomacy is a learned skill

The mother of a 4-year-old once confided to me, "I don't want him to be totally honest. I want him to be selectively honest." I knew exactly what she meant. We all know that kids say the darndest things, but we often find that the remarks sound much cuter when they're coming from the mouth of someone else's child. Often it is the audience, more than the performance, that makes us uncomfortable.

Most of the time, children don't intend to be rude when they ask embarrassing questions. Often they're just gathering information: Why does that boy have only one leg" Where is that man's hair? Does the lady with a big belly have a baby in her tummy? When young children ask these kinds of questions, they really want to know the answers.

Deliberate rudeness demands a response

There are always going to be occasions when a child deliberately acts up in public because he wants to show off, annoy you, get attention, or look cool in front of his friends. The issue here is intent. A deliberately rude child means to insult, hurt, or embarrass you in front of other people. And that calls for a different kind of response from you.

Imagine taking your child to the department store to buy him a pair of sneakers he's been longing for. When the salesman suggests another style that might fit better, your child cries out, "No way! Those are ugly. Nobody wears shoes like that." The salesman bristles. Your cringe. While you don't want to fuel a nasty poser struggle, you can't let this behavior slide.

First, address your child: "That was totally unacceptable. It's not the way we speak to others." Tell the salesman, "I apologize for my son. I think we'll do without the shoes." And then walk out. Your child will definitely get the message. Usually, it doesn't work to force your child to apologize himself. The person he insulted knows it's not sincere, and your child gets the message that he need only pay lip service to politeness.

If you're in a situation where you can't leave, it's still important to make a strong statement to your child right then and there, such as "That was very disrespectful. We'll discuss the consequences for this kind of behavior as soon as we get home." Then make sure you follow through. The worst thing you can do is let it slide without a response.

Again, be aware of the difference between impulsive and deliberate behaviors. When children act up in public or are sassy and fresh-mouthed, they don't always understand how hurtful they can be. Impress upon your child that words can sting and ask how he would feel if someone made a similar remark to him. Find ways to emphasize that being considerate of other people is an important part of you value system.

When you find yourself being embarrassed by your child in public - whether she is intentionally acting up or simply acting like a kid - remember that your role is to be her protector and advocate. She always come first.

Comebacks for critics

Sometimes we're so busy trying to protect the feelings of strangers that we forget to protect our children (and ourselves) from the rudeness of others. Consider how often adults make insensitive remarks to children, such as, "It looks like your hair's on fire!" to a redhead or "Who stole your front teeth?" to a gap-toothed 6-year-old. And then there are the things adults don't say to little kids, like, "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry." Perfect strangers also seem to be just loaded with "good advice" Of course, you can always ignore them. But parents have told me they resent the criticism and long for a good - and polite - comeback. One day I asked my workshop group to think of some responses for when a stranger interferes.

They say ... You say ...
To the man who says, "Your son is obnoxious." Reply coolly, "I'm sorry you feel that way," and turn your back.
To the woman who comments loudly to a friend, "How can she let her child go out in public looking like that?" Laugh and say, "I think she looks fabulous in sequins."
To the man who teases your daughter by saying, "Hey, little girl. Cat got your tongue?" "My daughter has been taught not to speak to strangers."
To the woman who openly criticizes the way you handle your child. "I'm sure you'd do it differently if you were his mother."
To the man who advises, "That child needs a good swat." "I don't think this has anything to do with you."


Copyright 1999 Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing. Excerpts reprinted from PARENTS magazine by  permission.


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