My Children Are Well Behaved in Public–And I have No Control Over Them

The latest scuff up over a seeming never ending debate on children in public involved a store owner in Maine asking a couple to get their toddler to stop crying. After a long time of crying (it was raining outside), the owner took it upon herself to pound her fists in front of the toddler, screaming at the child to stop.

As is near predictable, a debate erupted, which mostly amounted to people defending the store owner, claiming that the couple had no “control” over their child, and, as such, should not be out in public.

Recently, I went to a restaurant with my children, one aged 3 years and another aged 10 months. A group of women were near us, drinking alcohol. As we were packing up to leave, a woman from the group tapped me on the shoulder, while holding a wine glass, and said, “Your children were so quiet I didn’t even know there were children sitting behind me!” This, of course, gives me full authority to talk about children in public. 😉 But in seriousness–I have very few problems with my children while out, and I am out a lot, and I see a lot of problems with near all other children, all of whom have parents who don’t hesitate to try to “control” their children.

My usual outings involve public parks, gymnastics, and restaurants. What I see the overwhelmingly majority of the time are parents who, without any shame or embarrassment, tell their children they don’t care what the children want; that their tears are never justified; that their needs are made up or small; that they need to do what they’re told right this instant; that they cannot move literally even one half of a step; and the occasional attempt to give children some control over their life, which is usually a veiled attempt at coercing the child into something.

Just today, I saw a child crying from the moment he was told it was time to leave (gymnastics) to the time he got in the car. As he was getting in the car, he said, “I want [something I could not hear.]” His mother screamed, “I don’t care!” Again today, in a restaurant for lunch, a woman was yelling at a girl in the bathroom, “When we go back to the table, you are going to listen to your mother. Do you understand me?” The girl giggled, teeter tottered on her feet, and half nodded yes. While the woman was dealing with another child, the girl again teeter tottered on her feet, not even moving one step away, to get yelled at for not standing still. At a restaurant just last weekend, I saw a boy, about 4 or 5, in terrible tears and with a look of total confusion, being carried out of the restaurant by his mother, who was yelling at him, “Don’t say a single word! I don’t care what you have to say!”

I have heard children tell their parents they are hungry to be told, “You just ate!” I have seen children suffer through their very first feeling of defeat, such as losing a race, in public, to be told, “You can’t always win! Stop crying!” I saw one boy, while out in public, literally sitting in the middle of an open playground area, while his parents proudly frolicked on the swings, yelling at him, “When you stop crying, we’ll deal with you! Look, everyone is staring at you!” Do you see why this stuff kills me?

Let me ask you: How would you feel if you had no control over your own life–when you ate, used the bathroom, went to sleep, or anything else–and the people put in charge of you didn’t take your needs into consideration, told you to wait and stop crying, and called you a brat for it all to boot? Would you cry, lash out, maybe even hit someone?

I don’t see the ubiquitous whining and crying from children almost everywhere in public as a product of parents who lack control of their children. Instead I see it as parents who cannot console children. I see it as an almost hum of children whose needs have been painfully ignored, who are treated as puppets in someone else’s plans, who aren’t given any respect.

I never yell at my children (Try not to anyway … I have my moments of irritable weakness). I don’t hover. I never ask, “Do you understand?” And yet they are calm and my 3 year old is very cooperative (My 10 month old is just … well, 10 months old). If I had to describe why I think this is succinctly, I would say: It is because I respect them, and, in times when I need their cooperation, I strive for clear, matter of fact expectations, with strong demonstrations.

There is no price tag that can be put on the amount of trust that I’ve built between me and my child (My 3 year old). He knows I have his self interest in mind. If I am asking him to do something, he knows it is from a person who has shown him love over and over and is doing something probably to help him. Building this trust could fill at least 3 separate articles–I can but barely touch upon it here. I would not want the task of trying to calm another parent’s child down. I would try, but this trust is key.

Where a lot of parents go wrong, I think, is they see their children as potential selfish brats, who are intentionally malicious, and it’s their job to beat this selfishness out of them. In reading about positive discipline, the most important mindset to have is that children are almost never intentionally malicious. I like the Janet Lansbury book title, “No Bad Kids.” I don’t always give my children what they want. I do always acknowledge it. If I had to make a flow chart of what tactics I use with my children, the first box would probably be “Reflective Listening.” Some things I find myself saying: “You’re hungry?” “You wanted to stay at the park?” “You want to have the steering wheel of the car in the backseat while I drive?” All of these are statements I have made!

When you absolutely cannot give your child what they want, my favorite tactic is from Dr. Haim Ginott, which is to “Give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality.” When my son wanted the steering wheel to hold in the back seat (He was about 2), I had a pencil and paper and drew him a steering wheel. I am not sure if the fantasy part of it worked, but he got so distracted by what I was drawing that he forgot about the steering wheel. When he wanted milk in a white cup and not a yellow cup like we had, while out in a car, with only said yellow cup, I described to him a moon, made up entirely of white milk, with a space rocket, that was like a cup, and was WHITE, and was going to fly to the moon and get all of the milk in this white cup for him to drink. That story took a long time for me to come up with (as I tried other stories) and tell, but it eventually had his eyes lit up, while he laughed, and calmed down. If he is hungry, I never say, “We aren’t near any food! You will just have to wait!” This is disrespectful to his clear need and desire to eat. Instead I indulge the fantasy of what he wants and I say, “I am going to get to our house as fast as I can so you can eat!” I then proceed at a normal pace to our house. He loves to hear this and it calms him down–and I love when I hear him say this to his little sister, who is sometimes in this exact same situation. (“Baby! Mommy is going as fast as she can to get you some food!”)

If I need my child to cooperate, I try to communicate in a way that will resonate, rather than demanding he try harder to understand or listen. When it’s time to go from a fun event, my SOP (standard operating procedure) is to tell him he can do 1 more fun thing, then I tell him, by counting what is going to happen next. For instance, “After you do one more fun thing, we are going to do three things. 1. Put your shoes back on. 2. Use the potty. 3. Go to a restaurant.” My son happily picks his fun thing; then executes the rest of the steps, which he often takes pride in, because he can do many of the steps “all by himself.”

If we are in a new situation, I try to model desired behavior. One of the most important is use of the potty. In any new place we go, I show him where the potty is, and sometimes even insist he go, so he knows where it is and what to do should the need arise.

One time, when we were routinely leaving a place near a busy parking lot, he kept running away from me. I drew an “X” on the ground, on the sidewalk near our car, where I wanted him to go to and stand as I loaded his sister and bags in the car. It worked really well. Routines, charts, labels, advanced warnings–what I think of as “strong demonstrations, clear expectations”–they all go a long way. Discipline in my book comes down to: explain, explain, explain, coach, teach, guide, explain, coach, guide, reassure, teach, and explain again.

I have seen times when parents try to give children choice, but they do it quite wrong, and it is an epic fail. One time, a girl had a toy that another child expressed interest in having. In modern American culture, it absolutely cannot stand that a child wants something and another child doesn’t immediately relinquish it. No, one child’s demand is always a claim on another child’s toy–teaching said child that waiting their turn (i.e. patience/respect) is not a value. Anyway, the mother of the girl with the toy asked the girl to give up the toy. She didn’t. Then for the next several minutes, the mom kept insisting, “I need you to make the right choice. I want you to give the other kid the toy.” This is an epic fail, because that girl had no choice. That mom wanted her to give up the toy. If it really were a choice, it would have gone like this: “Sweetheart, this other child wants this toy. I want you to be aware of this. It is up to you if and when you let this other child have the toy.” This approach would give information, give the child genuine choice, and the parental involvement would then end. Instead, it turned into nagging and nagging and nagging. If the child genuinely has no choice, don’t give them one.

I try to let my child be as free as possible. It is not for lack of “control” that parents can’t stop their children from crying. Trying to wield control is all many parents do. At gymnastics, there is a constant presence from parents, who hover over their children, yelling, “Don’t jump so close to other children”–while the children don’t mind at all to be a few inches away from each other. Many times a mom has yelled to her child, “Don’t jump off that mat; it’s too high!”, then my son jumps off the mat, onto the soft mat below, running away, giggling. At a theme park once, my son and some children were chasing each other around a pole. The mother yelled, “You all have to run in the same direction! Otherwise you will crash into each other!” This same mother started to play a game to try to catch her children as they ran past–causing the children to crash into each other, the only time they did. If a child lashes out for any reason, oh! there is hell to pay. Control, control, control. It’s all they know!

I find when I go out that I have very little involvement with my children, other than the fun kind. I occasionally have to tell my son to wait his turn for a toy or piece of equipment that he tries to take from another child. I otherwise don’t hover or yell and I give my son a lot of freedom, so it usually works out that he is happily off doing his own thing, while I do other things, like tend to my infant. My son has very few meltdowns. I can name none recently. Getting to age 3 was a real milestone–I find he can understand what I am asking much better and executes the minimal things I ask much more quickly.

I will fully admit the ages from 1 until about 2 1/2 can be rough while out. I remember going to a restaurant once, and my son was very intimidated by large crowds at that age. In a restaurant, there are large crowds, and people love to stare at young children. As we walked to our table, he had many stares from strange people. This upset him–and then we sat down at a table, not realizing he was very, very hungry. He was irritable and upset, and for whatever reason, I felt pressured to stay at the table. I eventually took him out of the restaurant, where he had the chance to be away from all those scary people, and he could calm down. When he came back, he had food, and the rest of the night was pleasant.

I am not saying things are perfect, and I am definitely saying some ages are harder than others–and I appreciate the strangers in my life who understand this occasional childhood fussiness. But overall, things are pretty calm in our family. And, to achieve this, I wield no “control” over my children. They are respected members of our family. And it works really well.

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