When children act out in public, parents don’t always know how best to respond, according to Chuck Smith, a Kansas State University child development expert. The proper way to react depends on a number of factors, he said, including the child’s age, the purpose of the public outing and whether the child’s behavior even needs to be corrected.
The golden rule for parents, Smith says, is to set reasonable expectations and to stick to your guns when enforcing them.
“Many parents are concerned with the glare of onlookers, so they’ll let their kids get away with things because of the threat,” Smith said.
“You can’t let a child leverage your own sense of embarrassment in public to get what he or she wants,” he said. “It’s not that you ignore the public, but you have to decide where your real priority is — and that is with teaching your child. You can’t ever lose focus on that.”
First, Smith said parents should work on developing age-appropriate rules about how their children should behave in public. For example, asking a 5-year-old to be quiet in church is probably unreasonable. On the other hand, expecting that child to keep food in their mouth during a meal at a restaurant is not.
When a child misbehaves, Smith said it’s useful — particularly with younger children — to gently remind them of the rules by asking them whether they can recall what they are supposed to do.
“Then, when they look at you in a confused manner, you firmly remind them of the rule,” Smith said. “You don’t ever punish a child for something they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to do.”
Whatever the behavior, parents also have to decide whether it’s worth correcting.
For example, parents often will negotiate with a child who continues to whine about not getting a toy from the store. Smith calls that sort of behavior from children irrelevant and adds that it’s perfectly valid to ignore it.
“Any response to whining or crying, even punishment, shows that a child is in control and is pulling a parent’s strings,” Smith said. “The parent should rise above this noise and remain steadfast to the limit they set. You have to be smarter than the kid and realize that you are not going to be drawn into this.”
If the parent succumbs to that sort of behavior — even once — they’ll have a long road to hoe before the child will take them seriously again, Smith said.
“If you give in, you are going to have lots of temper tantrums before they realize that doesn’t work,” Smith said. “The child will remember that throwing a fit worked that one time. Gradually, they’ll realize that throwing a temper tantrum isn’t worth the energy, but it will take a lot longer and will take a toll on both the parents and child.”
In situations where a child is being a nuisance, Smith said it’s also important for members of the public not to make the situation worse. Unless there is obvious abuse going on, it’s best to not intervene unless you are offering help to the parent.
“Parents need to be appreciated for the hard work they do,” Smith said. “Never assume you know what’s going on. You have no idea how this child normally reacts and what this parent is going through.”
In some situations, Smith says a bit of understanding can go a long way.
“You can say something like, ‘I’m sure it’s been a long day for you, what can I do to give you a hand?'” Smith said. “You’re recognizing that person’s struggle and if they’re on the edge of doing or saying something inappropriate, you’re helping to bring them back to reality.”
Source: Charles Smith, 785-532-1946, firstname.lastname@example.org
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News release prepared by: Katie Mayes, 785-532-6415, firstname.lastname@example.org