Parenting in Public: How to Avoid Misbehavior

Child being held by adult

We've probably all had the experience of dealing with a crying or angry child in a public setting. Your face flushes, your heartbeat quickens, and you may feel unsure of how to handle the situation, especially if you feel that all eyes are on you. Dealing with temper tantrums is only one potential pitfall when you're out and about. Read on to learn about preparing for outings, teaching appropriate behavior, and dealing with safety concerns. These negative behavior prevention tips can mean the difference between an enjoyable day out and a harrowing experience!

Be prepared when taking your kids out

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Whether you're running to the store for milk or taking a day trip across town, a little preparation can fend off public parenting disasters. Make sure the diaper bag is stocked with all the essentials—diapers, wipes, an extra change of clothing, a few snacks, and a toy or book. Toddlers and preschoolers can usually tell you when they're hungry, but they don't always recognize thirst. Dehydration is a common cause of irritability so be sure to pack a water bottle. Tell your child what to expect and how to behave. For example, “We're going to the grocery store. You can walk next to me or you can sit in the cart. We need to be quiet so we don't disturb the other shoppers. You can pick out one box of cereal and some fruit.” Talk with your child about basic etiquette and even practice at home. Preschoolers can learn to say please and thank you. Older children can learn how to greet people, shake hands, open a door, and participate in conversations. Understanding social expectations will increase your child's confidence in public situations. It's also a good idea to practice safety rules, such as crossing the street and staying with an adult before these skills are needed.

Anticipate your child's needs

You strategically plan your drive to work to avoid rush hour traffic, you buy movie tickets ahead of time to avoid the line, and you've switched to a drive-through pharmacy. Apply the same efficient mindset to public outings with your young child. Avoid going out when your child is hungry or tired. Hit the grocery store, museum, zoo, or other venues when they're least crowded, typically mid-afternoon. Visit child-friendly restaurants early in the evening. Pay attention to cues that your child is becoming tired or overstimulated and don't be afraid to bail out early.

Set behavioral expectations for your child

It's unreasonable to expect children to tolerate shopping for hours on end, but early, purposeful guidance can make outings more enjoyable. Make sure you've set reasonable, age-appropriate expectations and communicated them clearly, e.g., “We walk and use a quiet voice in the library.” The first time your preschooler runs or yells, stop, get on eye level and repeat, “I need you to walk and use a quiet voice.” If the behavior continues, take your child outside or otherwise remove her from the situation. Repeat the request again. “You must walk and be quiet in the library or we will have to go home.” If your child repeats the behavior, calmly say, “We're going to go home now. We'll try again another day.” By setting expectations and consistently following through with a kind but firm consequence you are teaching your child that you will be there to guide her to appropriate behavior. Don't forget the power of positive encouragement when your child gets it right. “You walked and you used a quiet voice. You understand the library rules.” This approach requires extra time and attention initially but pays off later.

Handling Public Meltdowns

In spite of your best efforts, your two-year-old is in full meltdown mode in the middle of the grocery store. Now what? First, try to keep your sense of humor. This is one moment in the parenting experience and is not a reflection on your child or your parenting ability. Most people will be sympathetic to your situation, but ignore those who might be less gracious. Your focus right now is on your child's needs, not on what others may think. In general, trying to talk your child out of a meltdown in public doesn't work. Instead, go to your car or a quiet place, hold your child, and wait for the storm to pass.

Parenting in public tends to bring out our insecurities as parents. Consciously acknowledging this not only diffuses anxiety, but sets you on the path to intentional teaching and preparation.

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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
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Child being held by adult