How to discipline in a public place

by | Jun 2, 2020

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It’s hard enough disciplining children at home, but when they misbehave in public it’s a whole different story. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jó-Marié Bothma gives you some practical advice on how to cope.

Any new (or experienced!) parent will be able to tell you that one of the biggest fears of going out in public with young children, is that one cannot control what is going to happen. And, let’s be honest – we all want to be in control.

Some days your children might surprise you and be the envy of many others, who think you clearly have the best mannered children on the block and have all your balls nicely in the air. Other times you might end up with pie in your face (literally!) and have many people staring at you, while your children make you feel even worse.

Even though you might have an audience for your children’s bad behaviour, most people will, in fact, feel sympathetic and not critical. At some point most people have either been in your shoes (and survived it) or they will be there in the future. However, as we live in a society that tends to have a demanding and judgmental attitude toward parents and young children, we often feel that others might think of us as bad parents, and of our children as a nuisance.

Regardless of any looks you get, remember that your child does not always understand your embarrassment and that they are not trying to humiliate you. Keep this in mind when you respond to their behaviour, and aim to defuse the situation as calmly as possible.

Considerations when disciplining your child in public
We have only two options when it comes to the management or discipline of a child’s behaviour in a public place. We can either do something before it happens. or we can do something after it has happened. It is not the best of plans to do something while it is happening, as both you and your child need to be calm.

Feeling a sense of calm or control is very difficult when you have people watching you, and when you feel judged or vulnerable. Whether you need to intervene and debrief an escalating tantrum in the middle of the shopping mall or set limits and stop your child from throwing his food across the table in the restaurant, the same principle applies: no one can hear in the middle of hysteria, and no child will be able to learn anything from the disciplinary intervention while being so emotionally charged.

It is therefore not advisable to shout back or even to expect him to ask forgiveness from those he has misbehaved against. It will be a waste of time to talk him through the situation, reason with him or threaten him. You will just lose your authority in the situation. Even though you might succeed and stop the tantrum or misbehaviour with a little bribery, you will set yourself up for major failure during the next public visit, when little Johnny will eagerly wait for his treat before correcting his behaviour.

Predicting behaviour
Most parents can predict their children’s emotional moments, tantrums or misbehaviour before it happens. And it’s worth using the knowledge you have about your child and avoiding public places if their basic needs are not met beforehand. Well-rested, happy children with a full tummy will have a lower incidence of misbehaving in public.

Children also often misbehave in public when outings leave them disappointed in some way. Therefore, discuss with your children beforehand what you will buy and what you won’t. Explaining to him that you will not be buying sweets or toys and making him feel involved by letting him help you get the groceries from the list might prevent that tantrum in the aisles over the chocolate you do not want to buy.

Or explain to him that the outing includes them sitting at a table and drinking something he likes while you talk to another grown-up. This will curb his disappointment as he now knows beforehand that there will be no jungle gym to play on and no other children to play with.

Realising that the sugary treats your mother-in-law hands out during a coffee date with Granny often leads to your children fighting with each other at the table, is great. Use that know-how and offer them low-GI snacks before they go out with Granny and ask Granny to only give the treats near the end of the visit when they have behaved well.
Understanding that some children have a low tolerance for busy places and noisy crowds, might make you search for a quiet corner in a coffee shop behind the magazine rack, and protect your child from too much sensory input that way. The bottom line is, parents should help their children to manage their behaviour and emotions to the best of their ability, as children are just too young to manage it themselves. And by predicting and putting strategies in place beforehand, you can save yourselves many moments of unruly and disobedient public displays.

Rewards and consequences
Also make sure that you discuss with him what will happen if he disregards your authority and still misbehaves, even after you’ve discussed things beforehand. Make sure the consequences are something realistic you can follow through in a public place.

It could be telling him that shouting in the restaurant will lead to you taking him to the nearest bathroom and sitting there with him until he calms down. That might mean losing out on his dessert. Make sure that he clearly understands what you will not tolerate during the outing and how you will respond.

You could also discuss some form of reward if the outing goes according to plan, but that should not be the norm. Good behaviour is an important part of being a healthy social human being and one should not leave children under the impression that they will be rewarded every time he shows self-control and respects the boundaries. A good reward might mean that your child will be allowed to join you on your next outing as opposed to staying at home.

If you decide to discipline in a public place, you often do so with an audience in the background. The best way to handle the tantrum or bad behaviour would be to get down to eye level with your child, put your arm around him, and gently verbalise what you expect of him. If he does not respond appropriately, take a deep breath, take him by the hand (or pick up little ones) and get some distance between you and the audience.

If necessary, you can move to a more socially acceptable place: move your trolley to a corner of the store, or leave the restaurant and go to the nearest bathroom. It is not a bad idea to go out into the parking lot to be with him until he has calmed down. Do this as calmly as you can. It is easier to think clearly and handle the disciplinary situation better.

You can also plan what you will say to people who express their opinions or concern. Say something like: “We will be okay – just give us some time.”

Discussing what went wrong
If you have failed to predict the behaviour and have not set the boundaries beforehand, or if you did end up with pie on your face, the only other time to discipline your child about the situation is afterwards.

It is important to discuss what has happened and ways to do things better next time, when you are back at home. Try to use bedtime as the opportunity to handle this as everyone is more calm and collected then.

This discussion might also include a punishment of your choice. Parents often think that they should discipline in the heat of the moment so that their children will understand the consequences of their actions. Children are very much able to remember if they have misbehaved and it is possible and even advisable to rather discipline them afterwards when there is no audience watching and when you have also had some time to think about an appropriate form of punishment.

Limiting public outbursts, tantrums or misbehaviour
Spending as little as 20 minutes one-on-one time with your child before taking him into a public place, will make both of you feel connected with each other. Aim to stay connected by often making eye-contact, touching him and sharing little bits of conversations with him while you go about your errands or attend to your public responsibilities. This contact is deeply reassuring and can prevent challenging behaviour during public outings.

If you see something is about to happen, make contact straight away. Touch his arm or shoulder; try to relieve the tension with some laughter or by asking him to do something for you.