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 are real-life situations and solutions.

Who hasn't cringed while listening to a mother yell at her child in a fast-food line? Worse yet, who hasn't been that mother, trying to discipline a misbehaving child when everybody around her is all ears -- and all too eager to pass judgment?

Children will disobey. Be disrespectful. Whine. Hit. Lie. And not always in the privacy of their own home.

Disciplining your child in public presents certain challenges. For starters, who wants anyone -- from the checkout clerk at Wal-Mart to the crowd at Chuck E. Cheese's -- to think her child is bossy, bratty, or even downright bad? Yet no parent wants to embarrass her child in front of others.

We asked child-behavior experts for their tips on dealing with these seven everyday, could-happen-to-you situations.

1. It's your 6-year-old son's birthday. As your mother-in-law expectantly watches him opening his gift, he ungratefully tosses aside the pajamas she has bought for him and asks what else there is. Your mother-in-law looks crestfallen.

Is your mother-in-law truly dejected or just a little disappointed? Probably the latter. You shouldn't read too much into this situation: Your 6-year-old is just being honest, if tactless, about his feelings. If your mother-in-law is waiting for a great big hug and an enthusiastic thank-you, she may have unrealistic expectations. But that's not to say you shouldn't call your child on his behavior. "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 Evansville, Indiana, and coauthor of Right vs. Wrong: How to Raise a Child With a Conscience (Indiana University Press, 2000). 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, in Medford, Massachusetts, and author of Trouble in the Classroom: Managing Behavior Problems in Young Children (Jossey-Bass).

    Dr. 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 wants to go to McDonald's for lunch. You say no. In front of the entire library, she screams and hits you.

        There are two strategies for defusing the tension. The first is a middle-of-the-road approach: With a firm, you-can't-budge-me voice, tell your child that you're not changing your mind, then take her out of the library.

        A slight variation of this approach would be giving her an immediate time-out and some sort of repercussion later. "I would quietly take her out of the library and give her a time-out in the car, telling her that we'll talk about the situation when we're home," Dr. Kopta says. "At home, I'd say, 'Because you yelled and you hit Mommy, you won't be able to watch television or play with your kitchen set.' " Then take away something that she really enjoys.

        Option No. 2 is to use deadpan humor. "You could say something like 'I see you're not happy, but we're still not going to McDonald's,' " Dr. Pruett says. "It helps keep you in control."

        Nonviolent tantrums are okay to ignore, says Dr. Kopta. "They don't hurt anything except some eardrums. But I consider hitting more serious. Ignore it once and you might get hit twice the next time."

          5. You take your 5-year-old to the park. When another little girl won't get off the swing to give your daughter a turn, your child calls her stupid.

          Keep your comments short and simple. "Point out with a tone of voice that's not overly angry that those words hurt people's feelings," Dr. Scarlett recommends. "You could say something like 'Those words are mean. They are junk words, and junk words are not allowed.' " Resist the urge to lecture. Your child already knows the words are hurtful -- that's why she used them.

            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, Dr. 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," Dr. Scarlett says.

              7. You're at a restaurant having dinner with some of your extended family. Your preschool daughter is playing with and tossing her food. Your relatives look disgusted.

              Your preschooler is doing what kids that age do when they're bored or need attention. The fix: First, tell her firmly that it's time to eat, not play with her food, Dr. Pruett says. At the same time, engage her in the conversation or give her some activity to do, such as counting the people in the restaurant who are wearing red shirts. You can also bring crayons or a small toy to the restaurant to help keep her busy. The more included your child feels in what's going on at the table, the less likely it is that she'll make a missile out of her meat loaf. If that doesn't work, give her a warning, Dr. Kopta suggests. If the food fiasco still continues, remove her from the room and give her a time-out. As for your family's reaction? Try not to take it to heart.