Disciplining in Public

It's one thing to deal with a child's tantrum at home—but public displays of bad behavior pose unique challenges. Here, solutions to real-life situations.

Discipline Mistakes Mother Points Finger At Daughter In Grocery Story
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

It's hard to stay calm when your child acts inappropriately, but try to remember that she probably means no harm. A toddler can't yet gauge the responses to her actions—she doesn't know that picking her nose at Grandma's birthday dinner is impolite.

"Parents of toddlers should brace themselves for some awkward moments," says Beth Teitelman, director of the parenting center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Children this age are beginning to express ideas and revel in their physical abilities but haven't yet realized that some things aren't appropriate to say or do in public.

That's where Mom and Dad need to step in, especially if their child's actions could hurt others' feelings or even injure someone physically. Setting boundaries can be tricky—particularly for a person whose energy and curiosity seem to defy limits—but it can be done, effectively and lovingly.

Don't view your child's rude behavior as a reflection of poor parenting skills, and try to ignore any glares from other adults, which are inevitable if your child is, say, sampling grapes at the grocery store. "Your obligation is to your child, not to bystanders," Teitelman says.

Concentrate on ways to correct the problem, gently and without blame. "Punishment can leave 2-year-olds feeling crushed," explains Douglas Gregory, M.D., a pediatrician in Suffolk, Virginia. "They'll respond with fear or aggression."

Here, child-behavior experts share their tips for dealing with seven hypothetical yet all-too-common situations.

1. It's your 6-year-old son's birthday. As his grandmother expectantly watches him open his gift, he tosses it aside and asks what else there is.

You shouldn't read too much into this situation. Since young kids can't empathize with other people, they say what they feel—and they're brutally honest! Talk up the gift to your child, and apologize to his grandmother later. (And if she's waiting for a big hug and an enthusiastic thank-you, she may have unrealistic expectations.)

"Start teaching your child to think of others' feelings, even if it goes against his impulses," says S. Mark Kopta, Ph.D., chairman of the psychology department at the University of Evansville in Indiana and coauthor of Right vs. Wrong: How to Raise a Child With a Conscience. You can give him a brief reprimand at the time, but later, after everyone has gone, try role reversal. Sit your child in his grandmother's chair, and pretend to open the gift with the same reaction he had. Ask your son how such a response would make him feel.

2. You're shopping at the mall with your 3-year-old daughter. She begs you to visit the toy store, then insists that you buy her an expensive gift. When you say no, she throws the mother of all tantrums.

Taking a child into a toy store without first setting limits is like walking onto a minefield: Expect an explosion. "Prevention is key," says George Scarlett, Ph.D., a child-development expert at Tufts University and author of Trouble in the Classroom: Managing Behavior Problems in Young Children.

Scarlett suggests talking to your child about the shopping trip before you get to the mall so she'll know what to expect once you arrive. You can say something like "We're going to the mall, and there will be a toy store there. We can go in today, but we can't buy anything."

What if you didn't have such foresight and your child is having a major mall meltdown? "Get the stage lights off the child, and bring the curtain down," advises Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. Take her out of the store, even if she's kicking and screaming, and have as little interaction with her as possible until she calms down. "Keep your words and chastisement to a minimum—she won't hear you anyway," Dr. Pruett says. After the tantrum has ended, you can say something like, "This was hard on both of us. Now let's enjoy ourselves."

3. You take your kindergartner to a birthday party, and he begins bossing the other kids around.

First, ask yourself whether this is typical behavior. If it's uncharacteristic, figure out whether your child is hungry, tired, or sick—conditions that can make him act out. If you've seen this type of behavior before, resist the urge to step in: In this situation, your child's best teacher may be the other party-goers. If you don't intervene right away, he'll learn from the other children that he can't control them. They won't pay any attention to him, and they'll find other kids who share.

4. Your 4-year-old loudly draws attention to a stranger's physical appearance and the person appears embarrassed and offended.

"If your child is talking loudly, respond quietly," advises Judith Leipzig, a professor of early childhood and elementary education at the graduate school of Bank Street College of Education in New York City. "Try to answer questions with a simple, honest response."

For example, "Is that man a monster?" could be answered, "No, he's a man." If the topic is complicated—"Why is that man so big?"—it's okay to say, "I don't know" or "That's just the way his body is made."

Don't demand that your child apologize. "He was asking a question, looking for some reassurance—not trying to upset anyone. And he is probably not aware that his voice can be heard by those around him," Leipzig says. "If you are sure the man overheard and is insulted, you might want to apologize briefly yourself."

woman with hands on hips about to discipline children

5. As soon as you arrive at the park, your normally well-behaved kindergartner morphs into a banshee, screaming, pushing, and throwing sand at other kids.

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.

The next time you go to the playground, discuss 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. 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.

6. Your 2-year-old is possessive of his Duplo blocks. Whenever other toddlers try to play with them during mother-child playgroups at your home, he pushes the children away.

Don't get too worked up—your child is just displaying normal toddler behavior, as any mother of a child that age will undoubtedly recognize.

Toddlers are just learning to share. To minimize conflict, patiently tell your child that he has to take turns with the other kids, or try to divert his attention from the blocks, Scarlett suggests. To prevent a confrontation, you might want to have two sets of blocks around the next time. Though it's fine to set the sharing groundwork now, don't expect miracles. "It takes four or five years for children to really grasp the concept that sharing is good," says Scarlett.

7. You go to a family restaurant for a nice dinner. Within minutes, your kid is screeching and running around.


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. The more included your child feels in what's going on at the table, the less likely it is that she'll make a scene.

"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 that doesn't work, give her a warning, Kopta suggests. If your child continues to disturb other customers, take her outside for a time-out or cut your losses and ask for your food to be wrapped up.

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.

Stop It Before It Starts

  • Always use good manners and nice language in your home, advises psychologist Edward Christophersen, Ph.D. There's the temptation to slack off in your own house and roll out "company manners" only for special occasions like visits, but that's a mistake. "Your child learns by imitating you," he explains. "If you use the occasional bad word when you're talking to your spouse, don't expect your child to understand that he can't curse too."
  • Try some positive reinforcement. "Don't take notice only when kids misbehave," Christophersen says. "If your toddler is playing nicely or conversing well, support it by paying attention and interacting with him. That will build his self-esteem and lead to respectful behavior."
  • Know your child's limits. "Keep her developmental and temperamental needs in mind," says education professor Judith Leipzig. "If you absolutely must take your daughter to that daylong wedding, bring along a babysitter. It will pay off I the long run."
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