How To Discipline Your Kids In Public

Parenting sometimes feels like theater, where everyone is a critic—and my family took center stage this past weekend.

The morning started off so hopeful. I had all three kids and my husband on board to visit the Museum of Modern Art, which is close to where we live in New York. Minutes after our arrival, all three kids started to unravel. “I’m hungry,” said one. “I’m tired,” said another. They took turns complaining, and I took turns gently ignoring them and redirecting the conversation. Their impatience and whining began to escalate.

Be honest: Are you the same mom at home as you are in a museum or the grocery store? How about when your kid is having a meltdown in the candy aisle or next to a $100 million dollar painting?

And then: my 7-year-old had a full-on temper tantrum and parked herself right beside a priceless Jackson Pollack painting.

Let’s pause that scene for a moment. Be honest: Are you the same mom at home as you are in a museum or the grocery store? How about when your kid is having a meltdown in the candy aisle or next to a $100 million dollar painting? I’m not always.

Related: Use these exact words when your child acts out in public.

The Pressure to “Over Discipline” When People Are Watching

Parenting when the spotlight is on makes me sweat. I feel everyone’s eyes watching and judging: Am I doing enough, too much, not enough? In those moments when your child is acting out in front of a dozen eyes watching, it’s hard not to think: Does everyone think I’m a bad mom?

I’ve succumbed to the peer pressure of all those watchful, judging eyes and ears. I’ve been the parent on the airplane totally mortified by my children’s behavior. So, in an effort to overcompensate, I‘ve over-disciplined.

“You’ve lost shows for the month,” I once said to my children when they were acting up on a long flight, throwing my voice loud enough so the row in front of us and behind us could hear. As it turns out, my “over-disciplining” was as much a punishment for me as it was for them. A whole month without TV? What was I thinking?

Now back to the priceless painting. Visitors were watching, my other two children were watching, and most troubling, the security guard was watching. I’m pretty sure everyone was looking for a strict, swift end to the nonsense. As I was about to let out my firm voice and play the role they were all waiting to see, I looked into my daughter’s eyes and stopped. She was clearly exhausted and just starting to realize she’d made a really bad choice, but she was in too deep now to surrender. I could parent for the people watching or I could parent for her.

So, I chose her.

Related: How this family found peace and taught their kids to behave respectfully.

“I know exactly how you feel right now, honey,” I whispered to her. “Come here and let me give you a hug.” She paused and then ran into my arms and sobbed. I caught a glimpse of a few disapproving visitors shaking their heads at my tolerance or lack of “appropriate” discipline or whatever they were thinking. Did I do the right thing?

Forget the Judgment and Stick to Your Principles

I called therapist Debbie Pincus, one of our Empowering Parents experts and author of The Calm Parent: AM & PM to ask her advice. “The hardest part of disciplining in public is to not get caught up in other people’s judgments,” she said, “but instead to stay with your principles as a parent.”

It’s hard to think, let alone stick to your principles, when your child is losing it in the candy aisle of the supermarket. Debbie offers some tips to store and recall the next time you need to discipline your child in public:

  1. Start with empathy. I know how you’re feeling” is always a good place start (Phew! So I got it right in the museum.). In those moments, appreciate what they’re going through. They are usually embarrassed, so try to show you understand that.
  2. Make clear your limit or expectations for younger children. Calmly offer a couple of choices, as in: “You need to step back from the priceless painting. Do you want to get up off the floor yourself or do you want me to pick you up?”
  3. Make sure to enforce those choices. If they’re not getting up, then pick them up yourself, but stay neutral.
  4. Lighten it up and don’t be so serious. If you can, try to lighten it up with a joke, and even make it playful. As in: “Honey, if you don’t get up, people are going to mistake you for the art!”
  5. If you can’t make light of the situation, then keep your cool and do your best to move the tantrum or defiance along. Don’t stay stuck or escalate the situation by doling out punishments in the heat of the moment for spectators to see. Save that for when you get home.
  6. Remember to stay in your “box.” Your child owns her screaming, not you. It is within her control to stop, not yours. That’s her box. People’s reaction to your child’s screaming, or to your parenting, is their box, not yours. You only have control over your reaction to the situation, not your child’s screaming, not people judging. That is your box.

Related: Stressed out about your child? Just listen and you’ll feel calmer.

So, the next time your child throws a fit in the supermarket, take comfort remembering that it’s in these moments that your child learns about life’s consequences. “It is our job as parents not to control our children, but rather to develop the kind of strong relationship that will help them grow to be their own person,” says Debbie. I think one of the hardest parts of parenting is allowing your child to live with the choices he or she makes, even if they embarrass you a little in the process.

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