Being With Your Child In Public Places

Being With Your Child In Public Places

We live in a society that has a demanding and judgmental attitude toward parents and young children. Often, the attitude toward children in public is that they should be seen and not heard, that the parent should be ‘in control’ of the child’s behavior, and that children who are having feelings in public are a nuisance. In short, children are not really welcome. Their freshness, curiosity, and frank expressions of feelings are not seen as a gift.

In addition, the child rearing tradition that has been handed down to most of us sets us against our children when their behavior isn’t convenient for adults. In the eyes of others, we are expected to criticize, grow cold, use harsh words and gestures, punish, isolate, shame, threaten, or physically attack a child who is ‘misbehaving’. No parent really wants to act like an adversary to the child they love. We treat our beloved chil- dren in these ways when we can’t think of anything else to do, or when we fear the disapproval of others.

There are certain situations in which young children often become emotionally charged. These situations include:

• Being with several people–with the whole family at dinner, at a family gathering, a meeting, a birthday party, the grocery store, church, or temple.

• Moving from one activity to another–leaving home for day care, leaving day care for home, stopping play for dinner, going to bed.

• Being with a parent who is under stress–you can supply your own examples!

• At the end of any especially close or fun-filled time–after a trip to the park, after a good friend leaves, after wrestling and chasing and laughing with Mom or Dad.

When children become emotionally charged, they can’t think.

%22Stop and think. Make a good choice.%22

They simply can’t function normally. They become rigid and unreasonable in what they want, and are unsatisfied with your attempts to give them what they want. They can’t listen, and the slightest thing brings them to tears or tantrums. Their minds are full of upset, and they can’t get out of that state without help from you.

The help your child needs at this time is to have you set kind, sensible limits, and then for you to listen while he bursts out with the intense feelings he has. This spilling of feelings, together with your kind attention and patience, is the most effective way to speed your child’s return to his sensible, loving self. A good, vigorous tantrum, or a hearty, deeply felt cry will clear your child’s mind of the emotion that was driving him ‘off track’ and will enable him to relax again and make the best of the situation he is in.

How are we parents supposed to listen to a screaming, flailing child in the middle of the supermarket? Several adjustments of our expectations are necessary before we can allow ourselves to be on our children’s side as they do what they need to do in a public place. 

Every good child falls apart, often in public places. This is, for some reason, the way children are built!

Our society has trained people to disapprove of children doing what is healthy and natural. People disapprove of horseplay, of noise, of exuberance, of too much laughter, of tantrums, of crying, of children asking for the attention they need.

As parents, it’s our job to treat our child well. When other adults criticize him, it makes sense to do what we can to be on our child’s side.

Being parents means that we will have to advocate for our children in many settings. We need to advocate when we are with doctors and nurses, with teachers, with relatives, and with strangers.

Acknowledge that children legitimately need far more attention than it is comfortable to give. Adults who gave less attention to their own children, or who got little attention themselves as children, will be upset when they see you giving undivided attention to your child. We can expect these upsets, but we don’t have to be ruled by them.

What do I do when my child falls apart in the supermarket aisle, or at the grandparents’ house?

Spend one-on-one time with your child before you take him to a public place. Ensure that you and he are connected with each other before heading into a challenging situation. Then, stay connected. Use eye contact, touch, your voice, and short touches of your attention to stay with your child. This contact is deeply reassuring, and can sometimes defuse situations that your child often finds difficult.

When you see an upset beginning, immediately make real contact. See if you can find a way to play, so that your child can laugh. Laughter relieves children’s tensions, and allows them to feel more and more connected. If, when you make contact, your child begins to cry or tantrum, do what you can to allow him to continue. His upset will heal if the feelings are allowed to drain.

Slow down the action, and listen. If getting into the car seat has triggered tears, then stay there, seat belt not yet done, and let the tears flow. Listen until he is done. Because of this cry, your whole day, and his, will improve.

If necessary, move to a more socially acceptable place. Go to the back bedroom, or move your grocery cart out the exit to the sidewalk. Do this as calmly as you can. Your child isn’t doing anything wrong. It’s sort of like a car alarm going off accidentally–loud, but not harmful to anyone. These things happen!

Plan what you will say to people who express their opinions or concern. It’s hard to come up with a com- ment that says, “We’re OK–don’t worry!” in the middle of wild things happening, so think ahead. You can adopt some phrase like, “We seem to be having technical difficulties,” or, “My daughter really knows how to rip!” or, “It’s that kind of a day!” or, “After he’s finished, it’s my turn!” or simply, “We’re OK. I don’t think this will last all day.” A comment like this reassures others, and gives the message that you are in charge.

As one parent I know put it, “I’ve finally figured out that it’s my job to set a limit when he’s going ‘nuts’, and it’s his job to get the bad feelings out. As I listen to him, people might not be able to tell that I’m doing my job and he’s doing his, but at least I know that’s what’s going on.”

By Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting and Parenting by Connection. Parenting by Connection is the PLI approach to fostering close, responsive relationships between parents and children ( 

This article was reprinted with permission from EMK Press

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