Parenting when others are watching can be nerve-wracking, but a lot of those onlookers want to share advice, not pass judgment.
One kid is dangling dangerously off your grocery cart. Another is pulling cracker boxes off the shelves. Your list has gone missing, the whining is growing noticeably louder, and you're beginning to yell in that way that announces, "Mother of the Year in Aisle 5!" Parenting when others are watching can be tough, but it might help you to know that the grocery-store clerk is actually on your side. Same with the waiter, the flight attendant, and the nurse. Because of their jobs, they've seen nearly every child antic and tantrum you can possibly imagine. And it turns out that if you promise anonymity, they'll share some pretty great coping tips.
From the grocery-store manager:
"A grocery store can be a fascinating place for kids -- if you frame it that way. I have one customer who brings his 4-year-old with him and he narrates as they shop, 'Wow, look how many types of eggs there are -- white, brown, organic, cage-free.' Or, 'This is a poblano pepper -- it's good for frying.' His daughter may not retain all of the information, but she never gets fussy. If you're faced with interminable whining, instead of repeatedly promising, 'We'll be outta here in five minutes,' put your child in charge of picking up a couple of simple items -- the milk with the blue label or the cereal in the orange box. A mini grocery list of his very own takes his eyes off the exit sign and makes him feel important."
From the kids' clothing-store owner:
"Don't give your little ones too much power. I have moms who come in with their 2-year-old and say to her, 'Will you wear this?' If it's a comfortable piece of clothing (meaning loose with few or no zippers or snaps) in a color she likes (even if it's pink again), most likely she will wear it. To get your child to try something on, stay focused. For instance, if you're taking your grade-schooler to buy a party outfit, don't start adding jeans and tees to the dressing room. I've found that even a child who loves clothes will tire out after trying on three things. For the kid who generally hates to shop, call ahead to a small independent store and ask to have a couple of outfits in his size and favorite colors put aside. Most small businesses will be happy to do this."
From the children's hair cutter:
"To get a child to sit still during a trim, bring a favorite small toy or a board book for reluctant or nervous kids to hold in their hands. Knowing what to expect will help ease anxiety. If your child is really scared, play 'hair salon' beforehand at home. Use a bath towel as a cape and your fingers as scissors. You can even let her practice giving you a new hairstyle too."
From the toy-store owner:
"Avoiding the gimmes is a perennial issue. If you're with a toddler, be quick; it's hard for them to understand that they can't have everything. A short trip means less opportunity for your kid to notice all the fun toys. With older children, tell them up front the precise reason for the shopping trip, whether it's a reward for them or to get a birthday present for a friend, and exactly how many items you're going to buy. Then ask them to help pick something out in a certain price range. Concentrating on details and having a sense of empowerment will make them feel helpful and a bit more special.
I'll never forget one mother and her preschooler who came into our shop -- they picked out a doll to buy, but when the mother announced it was time to leave, the child ignored her once, twice, three times. So the mom said, 'You didn't listen, so now we're not getting the doll.' The child screamed as they left. I put the doll aside just in case they came back and, sure enough, they did a few days later. This time, when it was time to check out, the little girl walked right over to her mother's side, took the doll, and said, 'Thank you, Mommy.' It was impressive to witness such a change in behavior -- all because the mother didn't give in the first time."
From the nurse at the pediatrician's office:
"To best help prepare a child for a checkup, be honest about what's going to happen at the doctor's office! If your child asks if he's going to get shots, for example, don't lie -- because if you do, your child is more likely to get upset when the nurse or doc walks in to give an immunization. Another thing: Please don't ever, ever, ever threaten your kids with shots to get good behavior out of them. It's shocking how often I overhear parents in the waiting room say, 'If you don't stop that, I'm going to tell the nurse to give you a shot.' Obviously I know that parents just want their kids to behave well, but turning doctor's visits into a punishment only makes the office that much scarier the next time."
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More Helpful Advice
From the children's librarian:
"No one is ever too old for a picture book. I cringe when I overhear parents say to their child, 'Oh, you can't check out a picture book. You're in third grade.' I think parents forget about the greatness of picture books -- the stunning illustrations and the wonderful way these stories come alive when you simply read them aloud. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, and Miss Nelson Is Missing! are three of my favorite bigger-kid picture books. If your child is struggling to read, take turns. First, you read a page; then your child takes a stab at the next page. The whole experience will feel more rewarding and less tedious for your child because you're sharing in the effort. If on the other hand you have a particularly precocious reader, be careful when aging her up. Just because your second-grader can read the Harry Potter books doesn't mean she should. Parts of them can be scary! To keep an advanced 7-year-old stimulated, I first suggest the Chronicles of Narnia series, by C. S. Lewis. These are like the Harry Potter books, except they have more fantasy than frightening stuff. Also, try Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke."
From the family-restaurant owner:
"To keep kids happy while dining out, bribing them with your iPhone isn't the only solution. Try sitting at another table and pretending they're not yours. Just kidding -- kind of. If you are out with friends and your kids are over age 5, seat the adults at one table and the children at another right next to yours. Kids love being treated like adults, and they actually fuss less when they have a little space from their parents.
If you have toddlers, go early (i.e., 5 to 6 p.m.) -- the kitchen can jump on your order and you may not be crammed next to other diners, so you won't feel as stressed if the milk is spilled or they hoot a little. Another tip: I try to find the restaurant's menu online and take my kids' orders before we get there. Hungry kids will be able to eat faster, since you can order their food when the waiter comes to ask what drinks you want. I also make a point of asking for the check when the server stops by to see how we like everything -- it assures we can make a quick exit if the kids get impatient."
From the birthday-party entertainer:
"If your child is a guest at a party, remind her on the way there that it's Chlo?'s birthday, so Chlo? will get to go first, sit in the front, and blow out the candles. This can help stop tussles over toys and attention before they start. Remind your kid that she'll get her chance in the spotlight another time. If that's hard for your young one to handle, then stick close by to help prevent any meltdowns.
If your child is on the shy side, give him time to warm up. I see parents getting frustrated when their 3-year-old isn't jumping right in or participating with the ribbons and scarves or instruments I'm pulling out for them to dance and play with. Don't push your child to get involved if he's not ready -- all the action can end up being overwhelming.
Also, keep the guest list manageable. Hey, there's a reason most invitations come in packs of eight! Smaller parties are more fun and less intimidating for most little kids."
From the flight attendant:
"When traveling with kids, always pack extras -- of everything. If you have a long flight, take along a change of clothes for everyone. Drinks spill, dinners drop, and there is always the risk of motion sickness. And even if nothing goes wrong, airplanes are notoriously chilly, so bring socks and sweaters to stay cozy at 30,000 feet. Also, be sure to pack plenty of snacks! Planes have such limited storage space that we often don't have extra food for those times when hunger strikes -- especially in the event of an unexpected delay.
And remember: Don't be afraid to ask us to help! We're happy to lend a hand, whenever possible. Granted, during the busy boarding period, it's not always easy to deal with individual requests, but after takeoff most of us are more than willing to hold a baby or watch sleeping children while you use the restroom. Baby food and formula can always be warmed up, since we have hot water. Just keep us out of the discipline. Don't say, 'The flight attendant is going to get really cross with you.' We don't deserve to be the bad guy!"
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.