Imagine for a moment that you attend a moms group, our church has one. I imagine most churches have them. Moms get together and have Bible Study and the small non-school going children play in plain-sight of their mums. Well imagine if you were one of those moms and your normally sweet toddler decided to grab every single toy and beat every other kid in the group for no apparent reason – and you made a hasty retreat thinking – my kid had a late night or missed a nap. And it happens again… and eventually you just run out of excuses and realise that your kid does not do Bible Study terribly well… come to think of it just a dash to the market and a trip through the check out is fraught with disaster. A couple of moms just lately have asked me about helping them get their kids to behave better in public. Much better!!!
While I have written about discipline before, this is one topic where I just don’t have all the answers!!! As is often the very humbling case with parenting, it is situations like this where we see our own hearts being trained more than our children’s. We have to grapple with our pride and publicly display reserves of patience we never knew we had. The key is knowing that your children will misbehave from time to time, and be armed with a consistent plan of attack. Saying that all children are sinful rotters, or the reverse all children are angels and there is an excuse for their bad behaviour is not a very useful plan.
So, what do you do when your children, who behave perfectly at home, become monstrous as soon as they step out the front door? Here are a few tips… things that have worked and things that haven’t worked for us…
- Same Expectations, Wherever You Are: I know this is kind of obvious but it is so easy to just slide into bad habits… I am guessing that for folks that have a whole lot of trouble when they are out, “no” is a little hazy around the edges. That being said, when they are out they expect their kids to be better behaved and are quite surprised when they aren’t. For instance when we are at home and we just want to send one more email… if the child is smearing toothpaste around the bathroom – how bad can it be because you will only be a moment (pretty bad – believe me)!!! If you don’t want your child to be smearing toothpaste ever so quietly in the Bible Study leaders bathroom… then probably not the best idea to let them experiment with the toothpaste at home.
- Avoid Empty Threats: It can often backfire. For example: Saying, “You will just leave if they don’t behave,” can backfire really quickly. Sometimes you have to go out and sometimes your kids have to behave better than they want to. I will often huddle with my kids before we enter a store and remind them of the rules: “I will not be buying any treats at the check-out and so on…” And wherever we are I can just say “remember the rules…” without putting on a display of my very worst lecture mode. Establishing well known rules in advance is a great tool. It is never ever appropriate to “discipline” in public, whatever form of “discipline” you normally use, be it a lecture, a threat or even a wrap over the knuckles. It is just humiliating for both of you, no matter how obnoxiously your child is behaving you will only make things worse.
- Just Be Consistent: It is a lot easier if you have the same rules at home and when you are away. A ten minute trip to the post office or a week long visit in someone else’s’ home can be a lot harder if the rules keep changing. For example, just before dinner and you say no to a cookie, and no and no and then cave in… means that you have set a president for caving in. Many children assume, when you aren’t at home that they can push a little further before you will react, but suddenly when you are out “you mean it.” Certain rules need to be unchanging, but others are more flexible and can vary quite a bit. One cookie before dinner never tamed a hungry toddler but you can’t always do that when you are a guest or visiting a restaurant. The other thing is to react long before you would normally react at home (quite the opposite to what your child is expecting), yes it requires more energy but only initially, your children quickly realise it is just not worth being removed from the action – again!!!
- Location is not the Issue: The key is totally engaging a child and wrapping them up in your conversation, there is a bit of an art to this, but your kids are so thrilled at your attention that they literally forget to be bad. It is hard work of course and sometimes you just want to go out and stare into space, but the key to great small children in public like a restaurant, the store or whatever, is to keep them interested and busy – if they can’t be physically busy it is up to you to keep them mentally busy.
- Discipline is Training: Give your young children plenty of opportunity to practice. This is not the time to say my children behave awfully in public we will just stay home until they are five, ten, fifteen or worse!!! Sometime they are going to have to get out there and the sooner, most likely, the better. Yes, it is hard work and requires an extremely engaged parent most of the time… but it is so worth it. Take your children to restaurants for family dinner… not just one on one special parent child-dates – everyone is on best behaviour for those… but just casual trips to the market for dinner – don’t cost the earth and provide an opportunity for your kids to practice behaving well. Visiting friends, the library, the store… don’t always leave your small children home when you have errands – yes it does take longer to get things done with kids alongside… but it is a great opportunity to turn a humdrum errand into something fun. And mom’s bible study… just keep on going, your kids could well make their “friends for life there.”
- When the Wheels Just Come Off: I have eight kids – this is not such an uncommon occurrence to me!!! My kids are able to throw the most galactically bad tantrums in public… but I can usually see it coming… and if I am proactive and engaging with my kids I can even head it off. What do I do with the child who is throwing a fit under the pew during a Sunday Sermon? Honestly I have to expect that that may happen… and as soon as those little legs turn to jelly and crumple to the floor, when they should be sitting next to me… I can ignore them – never a good idea (probably the worst advice on earth!!!) or I usually have a clear image of the immediate future and scoop up the little person and get them OUT!!! A swift lets go outside and chat and when you get outside get down to their eye-level and explain how special church is and how important it is not to spoil it for others has never failed me. I know folk think I am taking my kid out for some sort of whipping – frankly that is not my concern, the fact is… my little one needs my attention, all of it… right then, no distractions and one on one, without the beady eye of every other person in the church watching to see how we get through this situation.
- Set them up to Succeed: Remember it is not your behaviour at stake here, well it could be depending on how you react to your child’s behaviour… it is your child’s behaviour we are talking about… so equip your children to cope, especially when they fail. Teach them to apologise, lead by example… they have to know how to say sorry for: “the priceless violin they may have broken…” (don’t even ask). There is nothing worse if a visiting parent apologises for appalling behaviour and their child is not in the least repentant… or worse: The parent that says: “Darling, say “sorry”.” – Just no. Accidents happen, mistakes are made, even wilful disobedience does occur… but your children most likely will feel awful about it and should be given the chance to repent and be forgiven. I think folks think their kids are too young to understand… but honestly they are doing their children a disservice. Their kids can understand the nuances of cartoon tv or communicate that they would rather have cold water from the fridge rather than just old tap water, then they can more than understand what you are saying about behaving well!!!
- Just be as Nice as You Always Are: This is not one of those parenting posts where I say: Do this, do that and the other thing while my children behave like angels… but I have found that with those parents whose children do appear to have angelic training… those parents that I have most admired, you never actually see them disciplining their children in public, and you never hear them talk about the bad things their kids do or have done. It is more of a continuous process that just seems to be ongoing and consistent. It is really all about training our children with a view to them being functioning adults one day and not so much about how we look in public right now.
And the Se7en + 1th Point…
Keep in mind that we live in an adult world… where even though it isn’t said folk still believe that children should be seen and not heard. Your children will behave like children but will be expected to behave a lot better than the adults around them and often they do!!! The grannies in church that unwrap endless cough drops… imagine if your kids unwrapped sweetie papers all the way through the sermon!!! Or the grumpy man that sends his meal back three times in a restaurant and then stamps his foot and refuses to pay the bill!!! Or the woman on the overnight flight that spends the whole night ordering drinks and the rest of the night climbing over sleeping children to get to the bathroom… and in the pauses laughing out loud and singing along to the movie she is listening to through the head phones. Just imagine what folks would say about children that did that. Keep a perspective on your child’s behaviour, don’t expect perfection… and don’t expect them to behave appallingly either, very often your children will rise to the occasion and completely out-shine every expectation that you ever had!!!