There is nothing more embarrassing than when your child misbehaves while out in public. Before having kids, I remember viewing such children as awful, spoiled brats. Now that I have three daughters of my own, who have all acted like awful, spoiled brats in front of perfect strangers, I tend to notice the unruly kids less and focus more on their parents and how they react to their child’s shenanigans.
My husband doesn’t like to go out to eat with our kids, all of whom are under the age of seven. Things usually start out okay, but inevitably, our children grow restless, noisy, and miserable. I try to make the best of it, but my husband is not quite as optimistic. It’s only a matter of time before he looks over at me and states his desire to only ever eat at home going forward. I generally respond by rolling my eyes and calling him a killjoy. True, our children are running around the table throwing pizza at each other, but I just happen to be the more laid back parent.
All joking aside, I do believe it’s important to discipline children outside of the home. If you don’t, you’re going to send your kids mixed messages and they’ll think it’s acceptable to be crazy monkeys at the supermarket. But how to discipline them when they are out of their element is the tricky part. Everyone knows how crucial consistency is when effectively disciplining children, so it’s important not to make concessions just because you’re out and about.
If you want to make your life easier, tell your kids what kind of behavior you expect on your outing before you leave the house. Don’t be so detailed that you overload their little minds, but also, avoid being so general that they have no understanding of what consequences they’ll face if they do get out of line. Non-edible rewards are an option if you are going on a long trip or to a non-kid-friendly place that requires an extra amount of self-control from your children.
How the kids behave on the way to your destination can sometimes be a good indicator of how they’ll act once there. If they’re already out of control, give them a warning and one more chance to turn their behavior around. If they don’t comply, discipline is in order. Follow through with what you discussed with them earlier so they know you mean business the next time you go somewhere. Once you arrive, give your kids the courtesy of reminding them often that you expect acceptable behavior from them and that they’ll be punished accordingly for misbehaving. Be sure to dole out plenty of praise for good behavior and attitudes as well. Children respond beautifully to praise and it acts as an incentive to please their parents further.
I like to use the ‘gold star’ system of praise for my kids. It’s nothing new, I simply made it my own loose-y goose-y unstructured version. No, I haven’t any crisp, white calendars labeled with my children’s names on which to place actual gold star-shaped stickers. I simply tell my kids they received a ‘gold star’ if they behaved appropriately on an outing. Of course, my two-year old always asks where the’ gold star is and I cleverly reply that ‘it’s in your head…close your eyes and imagine it’. My six-year-old understands the abstract concept of receiving an imaginary gold star and despite being much older than my younger two daughters, still strives to receive that approval from me.
I used to ‘give out’ imaginary stars of varying colors that were worth more or less than other colors. Inspired by the Olympics, I gave the coveted gold star for outstanding behavior, the satisfactory silver star for good behavior, and the somewhat disappointing bronze star for okay behavior. Sometimes, when I thought the kids were acting really rotten out in public, they received the dreaded black star. Since my kids don’t have a firm grasp on why a silver star would be worth more than a sparkle-y bronze star, I scrapped the system but continued with the gold stars. I still whip out a black star for when I’m really annoyed though. They never like to get those.
Another time that it’s essential to maintain consistent discipline is when visiting the in-laws or other family members. You know they are judging you anyway, so you may as well seem like you have some idea of what you are doing. I always feel like my in-laws think I’m either being too harsh in my discipline or too laid back, causing their grandkids to become spoiled. Of course, I never feel like I can please them and that they think they did things so much better while raising my husband than I could ever do with my own kids. In the end, I try not to let their opinions influence my disciplinary style too much and go about business as usual when redirecting my kids’ behavior or doling out consequences.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything to get your children to behave outside of the home and nothing has worked, consider hiring a babysitter or finding a willing family member who can mind the kids for you when you need to go on an outing. Remember, often when kids are very young, it’s difficult to expect them to behave in public in a way that you would prefer simply because they are too immature to control themselves. Sometimes, everyone benefits from having a third party step in to help out while you run errands or go out for a peaceful meal.
If you never feel comfortable with your own style of discipline, inside or outside of the home, there are hundreds of books out there that you could read for some insight. Your child’s pediatrician is another invaluable source for information and could tailor it specifically to your child’s disposition. For moral support you can turn to local Mom groups or online message boards to seek out others who can empathize with your particular conundrum.
Discipline is a form of love. Deprive your child of it now and they will later hate you for it. Be consistent with it, and though you my think your kids dislike you for setting boundaries and teaching them how to act, they really appreciate you for caring so much about them. Someday they may give you a gold star!