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How to Handle Discipline in Public

Sarah Hamaker

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Published: May 19, 2022
How to Handle Discipline in Public

No matter how angelic they are most of the time, our kids will misbehave in church, at the store, at the park, on a play date, at a sporting event, or at a party. Being prepared beforehand will make a world of difference in how you respond.

In the supermarket cereal aisle, the toddler screws up his face and lets out a scream to rival a horror movie heroine. In the public library, the preschooler refuses to leave the children’s computer area and has to be physically picked up and removed while kicking and yelling.

As a mom of four and a foster mother, I’ve had my share of public displays of temper and misbehavior from my children, including the above-mentioned memorable moments. I still remember my hot cheeks and temper as I struggled to maintain my composure while dealing with a squalling child as others stared—and probably judged me for having a child behave in such a way. No matter how angelic they are most of the time, our kids will misbehave in church, at the store, at the park, on a play date, at a sporting event, or at a party. Being prepared beforehand will make a world of difference in how you respond.

Before we tackle how to handle discipline in public, here are two important things to keep in mind.

Delay delivery of consequences when possible. There’s a secret that calm, confident parents know, and that’s that you don’t have to hand out punishments for wrongdoing immediately. Here’s why. Children begin to form long-term memory around age 3, which means if your preschooler can tell you at dinner what he ate for breakfast that morning, you can hold off giving consequences for several hours. As your kids get older, you can delay serving out justice for infractions by several days. This is good news for the parent whose four-year-old decided to throw a temper tantrum because she didn’t want to wait her turn for the slide. You can simply help the child calm down rather than punishing the kid right then and there. When you return home, remind the child of what happened, then deliver the consequences.

Keep your cool. Yes, I know this is easier to read than to accomplish when your child is kicked out of the soccer game for unsportsmanlike behavior. But seriously, no one wins if you’re yelling at your child. If you tend to blow your top when your kids misbehave in public, learn your own physical anger cues (for example, Do you clench your jaw? Have tears spring to your eyes?), then work on recognizing those before you lose your cool. Develop your own anger-reducing methods, such as deep breaths, shoulder shrugs, shaking out your hands, and rolling your neck, to help you regain composure.

Chances are, your child is already embarrassed by his behavior, so having a parent pile on with angry words won’t help the situation. Instead, stay calm, and the situation will be resolved much faster—and with less angst on everyone’s part.

Three Ways to Handle Discipline in Public

1. Help your child calm down first. 

Your child is usually upset about something, so tone things down rather than rachet up the heat by guiding your child into a calmer state of mind. Deep breathing or simply standing quietly by your tantruming child can work. When our four-year-old foster child gets upset in public, I hold his hands and sing one of his favorite songs in a low voice until the storm passes. Music can be a wonderful way to calm an upset child.

2. Keep it private. 

If at all possible, gently pull your child aside, away from prying eyes, to correct him. I recommend doing this at home if you have other children. Praise can be given in public, but discipline should be done in private. For privacy in a public place, try the restroom, dressing room, or your car to address the issue.

3. Keep shame out of it. 

There’s no need to heap guilt on our children in public (or most times in private as well). But with others potentially listening in, your child will likely already feel embarrassed, so there’s no need to add parental shame to the mix. (See my articles “Shame on You” and “Is there a place for shame in your parenting toolbox?” for more on shame and discipline.)

While the above suggestions are great for when you need to address misbehavior in public, wouldn’t it be even better not to deal with it at all? So here are five ways to help your children learn to behave in public places.

Layout expectations before you leave the house. Go over the ground rules for the outing before you get in the car. Remind them how to behave, such as holding your hand in the store or sitting in their chair in the restaurant. While my kids are teenagers now, I still do this on occasion to make sure they are mindful of my expectations.

Roleplay each situation. We did this a lot when our kids were little. For example, we pretended to go to the store by piling in the minivan, then exiting in our driveway. With four young kids in tow to run errands, I taught them to stand with their backs to the car, so I could keep an eye on them while getting the baby or toddler released from the car seat.

Practice, practice, practice. The adage “practice makes perfect” can apply to so many situations, but especially to how children behave in public. If your child hasn’t been behaving in public, do dry runs—where you don’t need to complete a shopping trip or meet friends at the park for a play date—with the sole purpose of letting your kid practice what you’ve taught him in role-playing. Does this take time? You betcha, but the reward of having a child who not only knows how to behave in public but actually does it most of the time is priceless.

Prepare ahead of time. Is there anything worse than trying to buy an appliance in a big box store with four kids under age eight in tow? That was us one year, so knowing the wait would be longer than my children’s patience, we came prepared with bags of quiet things to do, like coloring books and pencils, lace-up cards, magnetic “paper” dolls, etc. Each child had their own bag, which they used during church, in restaurants, and at other outings where the kid-friendliness factor hovered close to zero.

Reward good behavior—sometimes. I’m not a fan of bribing kids to behave, but I am a fan of giving them unexpected treats as a reinforcement for good behavior. However, it needs to be totally random for this to be truly effective. In other words, your children should not be able to predict when you’ll spring a treat on them for being good in public, but they should know that occasionally, you might notice their sterling behavior and provide a sweet thank you in the form of a trip to the ice cream parlor (a favorite destination in our house!) or a stop at a park.

Finally, if you see a mother or father struggling with a screaming child, say a prayer for her. Send her a commiserating look or tell her she’s doing a good job. If you can assist in any tangible way, such as unloading her grocery cart or staying by her stuff while she deals with the kid, then do so. Don’t judge her for this one dreadful moment. It can happen to any parent at any time with any child. Instead, use the moment to build them up as a parent. We can all do with a little more charity and kindness in the world, and we have the power to start with a simple word of encouragement to the parent of a tantruming child.

With a little planning and practice, you can stop fearing public displays of misbehavior and meet any such moments with calm, confidence. If you still make the occasional stumble, don’t despair—there will be other opportunities for both you and your child to get it right the next time.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Antonio_Diaz

Sarah Hamaker is a national speaker and award-winning author who loves writing romantic suspense books “where the hero and heroine fall in love while running for their lives.” She’s also a wife, mother of four teenagers, a therapeutic foster mom, a UMFS Foster Parent Ambassador, and podcaster (The Romantic Side of Suspense podcast). She coaches writers, speakers, and parents with an encouraging and commonsense approach. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.

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