We all want our children to be at their very best when we're out in the world. But here's the hard truth: Kids will scream, disobey, hit, have meltdowns, and behave rudely no matter where they are (and it seems like the more public the setting, the more likely they are to act out). While there's no way to avoid these mortifying moments, you can minimize the embarrassment and set the stage for better behavior in the future. We'll help you deal with five tricky situations when all eyes seem to be watching.
During a weekly grocery run, your 2-year-old spots the potato chips and shouts, "I want that, Mommy!" When you refuse to buy the chips, he starts shrieking at the top of his lungs. You're tempted to bail, but if you do you'll be eating ice cubes for dinner.
Quick fix. Distract your child (with a toy or a snack you've brought from home) long enough to gather the must-have items on your list. If he won't stop screaming, try asking him to help you pick out a can of soup or load the groceries onto the checkout belt. "The more he feels like part of the process, the more cooperative he'll be," says Robin Goldstein, PhD, author of The Parenting Bible. But if these tactics don't calm him down, hightail it with what you have to the express line, where a sympathetic shopper may take pity and let you cut ahead.
Long-term solutions. Pay attention to your child's typical mood pattern during the day, and schedule your shopping around it. Right before naptime is an obvious don't. "Little kids need to decompress after daycare too, so that's also not a good time to hit the store with them," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know. Before you go into the store, lay out the ground rules. "When we go to the supermarket, I let my son, Jake, who's 3, pick out one item and hold it while we shop," says Randi Pellett, of Brooklyn. "If he behaves until we're done, he gets to keep it. But if he acts up, he has to put it back." Also keep your expectations realistic: Even at his best, a small child won't stay patient in a crowded store for an hour. Save major excursions for the weekend, when you can go on your own (or tag-team with your spouse).
After a stressful week at work, you head to a family restaurant for a nice dinner. Within minutes, your kid is screeching and running around.
Quick fix. Dial down your child's energy level by taking her for a walk around the block or reading her a quiet story in the car once you've placed your order. When you return, distract her with games. "We show our kids three items, like a sugar packet, a salt shaker, and a napkin, then have them close their eyes while we hide one," says Tracy Bauer, of Kirkwood, Missouri. "They take turns guessing what's missing. That usually keeps them entertained until the food arrives." If your child continues to disturb other customers, cut your losses: Ask for your food to be wrapped up, and leave. "When Tyler, my 2-year-old, starts throwing his food, we know it's time to go," says Jennifer Ragan, of Sacramento, California.
Long-term solutions. Since hunger and boredom often lead to bad behavior, bring some healthy snacks for the kids to munch on while you're waiting for your meal and a bag of books, toys, and crayons to keep them busy. Make a habit of ordering as soon as you sit down (you can call ahead for the children's menu choices) and asking for the check when the food arrives.
Ultimately, how well your children act at a restaurant depends largely on what kind of behavior you tolerate in your own dining room. "If you let your kids leave the table the minute they're done eating, they're not going to sit nicely at a restaurant," says Cynthia Northington-Purdie, PhD, professor of psychology at William Paterson University, in Wayne, New Jersey. Insist that they sit patiently while everyone takes turns talking about their day. Gradually increase the time until your kids can make it through dinner and dessert without squirming.
As soon as you arrive at the park, your normally well-behaved preschooler morphs into a banshee, screaming, pushing, and throwing sand at other kids.
Quick fix. Jump in as soon as your child starts losing control. Say, "You cannot throw sand at other kids, but maybe this little boy wants to build a castle with you." Supervise your child closely. If his bratty behavior doesn't stop, take him to a secluded bench and sit quietly for a few minutes. Don't make threats -- simply ask him, "Can you tell me when you're ready to go back and play nicely?" But if these strategies don't make a difference, it's time to leave.
Long-term solutions. Discuss playground dos and don'ts before you leave the house. You can take it one step farther by having your child draw pictures of kids playing nicely and hanging the artwork on his wall. Also bring several sand toys instead of just one. This encourages kids to work together on digging projects rather than fighting over a coveted object. When your child behaves well, give him a big thumbs-up, says Steven Friedfeld, a child psychotherapist in New York City. Also be as specific as possible with your praise ("It was great how you let that little girl go ahead of you on the slide") so he knows how to act the next time.
Quick fix. Safety is your first concern, so don't worry what other people think as you charge through the crowd after your curious child. Leave your heavy shopping bags and the stroller behind (if possible, ask another parent to keep an eye on them for you). Once you chase down your child, strap her into the stroller and explain in a calm but serious voice that she needs to stay in it for the rest of your trip because you can't trust her not to run off.
Long-term solutions. Even a 2-year-old can understand the concept of staying close to Mommy and Daddy. Don't scare your child with tales of kidnapped kids. Instead, explain that you're afraid she might get lost. Also try playing freeze tag or "Red light, green light" at home. Both games teach kids to stop when they hear your signal.
You finally have a chance to hang out at a friend's house, but your child is a nightmare guest. He decides to use the white sofa as a trampoline. And when he's offered a snack, he makes a face and says, "Eww, this is gross!"
Quick fix. Don't discipline your child in front of your friend, since having an audience may cause him to act out even more. Instead, take him into another room (preferably out of earshot of your host), and calmly review the proper way to act when you're a guest in someone's home. If he's bored because there are no toys to be found and the conversation is about grown-up stuff, try to include him as much as possible. Also do your best to come up with some quiet activities to keep him occupied for a while. If your child's behavior doesn't improve, cut the visit short. Apologize and say, "We would love to have you over to our house next time."
Long-term solutions. Many kids who misbehave in an unfamiliar place simply don't know what's expected of them. It's your job to teach him the right way to act in social settings. By age 2, your child is capable of learning basic manners, such as saying "please," "thank you," and, just as important, "no thank you." Make a game of having him repeat the rules back to you (ask, "Is the couch for sitting or for jumping?"). If you're visiting a child-free home, tote along books, games, and videos (though only use the latter in a pinch). And practice, practice, practice. "I role-played with Jason and Daniel about how to handle the public situations that might come up," says Melinda Greenberg, of Baltimore. "I still review table manners regularly and remind my sons how to respond if they are given something they don't like."
When your kid acts up in front of your family at the holidays, it feels just as mortifying as her worst public spectacles. Here's how to smooth things over.