Should You Discipline Your Child in Public?

Kids tend to act out, especially if they think their parents may be less inclined to discipline them in front of an audience. The grocery store is a really common place for kids to have meltdowns. While some kids are bored, others are overwhelmed by the lights, sound, or activity. And many of them see lots of treats they really, really want or exciting things they want to touch.

Some parents, understandably, simply stop taking their children to grocery stores or other public outings in an effort to avoid the drama and embarrassment of dealing with a temper tantrum in the candy aisle, movie theater, or bowling alley. Others, however, don’t have the luxury of running their errands alone. Meanwhile, most parents want to find ways to enjoy public outings with their kids.

In fact, you can set your child up for success by letting them know exactly what an activity will entail, the behavior you expect, and what will happen if they don’t follow the plan. Using expected, consistent discipline practices at home and when out-and-about will help to curtail many behavior challenges from the get-go.

Should You Discipline Your Child in Public?

Use Authoritative Parenting

“The authoritative style is the middle road between the other two. It incorporates the [child’s] input, their feelings, and preferences, while the final decision ultimately remains the parents,'” says Dr. Sheff. This technique is more likely to get your child to listen and comply with whatever you need them to do. As a parent, you are placing limits and expectations, while also listening to your child’s perspective and considering their developmental stage and abilities.

Research tells us that most kids thrive—and are more cooperative—when parents use authoritative parenting, says Jacob Sheff, D.O., a pediatrician with Providence Health in Tigard, Ore. Rather than employing a permissive (excessively loose) or authoritarian (overly strict) parenting approach, the authoritative parent guides their child with a firm, calm, kind mindset.

Make Expectations Clear

Before you go into any public setting, such as a grocery store, dentist’s office, or video game store, think about how your want your child to behave. “Parents should set expectations,” says Dr. Sheff. To adults, it may be obvious that you shouldn’t run or scream in the bank, do handstands in the pharmacy, or touch the scissors at the hair salon. However, your kids really may not know what the right way to act is until they’re instructed, explains Dr. Sheff.

To head off problems, you’ll need to let your child know what to do—and what not to do. Consider parameters like your setting, timing, child’s age, who else will be there, and any safety issues when setting your expectations. Possible rules include having them hold your hand while crossing streets and walking in the parking lot, using an inside voice and “walking feet” inside a business, and not touching or taking anything without permission.

So, aim to keep your expectations developmentally appropriate for your child. For example, while you can expect your kindergartener to sit through a family-friendly performance, they may have difficulty silently watching a science lecture geared toward middle schoolers.

Establish Consequences

Using consequences is a proven discipline method. Rather than focusing on punishing or shaming, approaches that are known to encourage more negative outcomes, consequences teach, providing real-world instruction on cause and effect. Not only do consequences firmly, but compassionately, reinforce to the child that their behavior was not acceptable, but they also tend to promote more positive actions in the future.

Clearly explain what the positive consequences will be if your child follows the rules and what the negative consequences will be if they don’t. Kids do better when they know exactly what to expect and what’s expected of them. Surprises and uncertainty tend to throw them off their game. Once they know what behavior you want to see, they will have a better chance to comply. Plus, having a clear understanding of possible consequences helps to motivate them to act appropriately.

Additionally, explain the reasons for your rules, says Dr. Sheff. These conversations, prior to the outing, help your child understand why their behavior matters and can foster a healthy parent-child relationship. “It also falls under the rubric of authoritative parenting, whereas no rules would be laissez-faire, and rules with no explanation (‘because I said so’) would be authoritarian,” explains Dr. Sheff.

Avoid Problems Before They Start

Take steps to prevent behavior problems by making sure your child is well equipped to deal with being in a public setting. Avoid going to the store or another outing when your child is hungry or overtired, as they will be more likely to act out. Instead, plan to go after a meal or snack and at times when your child tends to be well rested. Additionally, you can ward off errant running, jumping, and other excessive movements by making sure they’ve had some exercise earlier in the day.

If you know a lot of patience will be needed, consider ways your child can pass the time. This may include bringing along a picture or activity book, a small toy, drawing materials, or letting them use an electronic device, when appropriate. Just be sure that you are using these items proactively rather than in response to misbehavior. Additionally, you can make an extra effort to engage your child in conversation, such as talking about the things or people you see around you while you wait.

Once you’re in the store, give your child a job. If they’re busy, they’ll be less likely to get bored, rambunctious, or into trouble. Pass grocery items to them, and tell them it’s their job to place them safely into the cart. Or give them specific items to be on the lookout for in each aisle. Even if it doesn’t always seem like it, kids really want to please you and are trying to fulfill your expectations. Giving them a task helps them to feel useful, responsible, and more inclined to be amenable.

Consider Your Child’s Needs

If your child is prone to sensory overload, do your best to choose a less busy time to run errands, such as in the morning, mid-week, or close to closing time. You can also aim to pick a venue with a more gentle sensory-related design, such as a location with more muted lighting and decor, quieter (or no) music, and more open space.
Plus, many kids, especially little ones or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may have more trouble resisting their impulses to move their bodies, talk, or otherwise be disruptive or impatient at times.

Be Consistent and Follow Through

When your child breaks the rules, follow through with a negative consequence. Consistently providing the same reminders and expectations and then following through if your child misbehaves will send a clear message to your child of the behavior you want and what will happen if they don’t comply. The key is to use your consequences even when it’s not convenient. This way your child knows that even in a public setting they still need to follow your directions.

Consequences, such as leaving the store or activity, giving them a time-out, or removing a privilege, can be used in a public setting. Sometimes, kids are banking on their parent wanting to ignore or placate their outbursts in public so as to avoid embarrassment or having to change the family’s plan, says Dr. Sheff. You can curtail this thinking by sticking to your predetermined expectations and consequences, even if it means disrupting your day or abandoning your grocery cart.

Of course, it can feel humiliating to have to pick up your screaming toddler and hightail it out of the store. And it can be tempting to just buy them the candy bar or toy they’re begging you for. But instead of working on the quick aim of calming them down, focus on your long aim of teaching them to behave appropriately and patiently in the store. Plus, if you give in on the purchase, you’ll be teaching them that whining in public gets them what they want.

Instead, find a quiet place for your child to have a time-out, take a break, or engage in a calm conversation with you. This could be on a bench in the store, out on the sidewalk, or in your car. You may even need to stop the activity and go home. While unpleasant, and likely inconvenient for you, doing so will send a powerful message to your child—that teaching them appropriate behavior is your priority.

Offer Rewards for Good Behavior

Research tells us that focusing on good behavior encourages kids to act appropriately, says Dr. Sheff. Using praise and rewards are proven methods to reinforce positive actions. Additionally, showing them enthusiasm, compassion, kindness, and positivity breeds more of the same from them.

To do this, give your child positive consequences for following the rules. Praise them every few minutes for staying next to you in the store, walking rather than running, and helping you shop. Tell them how fun it is to take them on outings with you when they are having such great behavior. Share how proud you are of them and what a good example they are setting for their siblings or other kids in the store.

You can also offer a tangible reward if they do well.

A token economy system may also be effective in keeping them on track throughout the store. You could offer one token per aisle or up to one token per minute. Tokens could be exchanged for an item at the store, or can be combined with a token system you are already using in the home.

Practice Sessions

Create opportunities to help your child practice the behavior that you’ll expect wherever you’re planning to go, such as the grocery store, a wedding, a playground, or a science museum. Think about which elements of an outing may be challenging for your child, such as waiting in line, not touching things, staying by your side, or using an inside voice.

Once identified, create opportunities to practice these elements, either through pretend play at home or in person. Pretend to wait in line for a table at a restaurant, with the express purpose of practicing waiting. You could even go after you’ve already had lunch or bring along a snack to munch on. Set a timer for how long you’d like them to wait—say 10 to 20 minutes. Then, once the timer is up, you can simply leave.

Make Room for Their Emotions

Let your child know that their feelings are welcome, even if their misbehavior isn’t. While it’s reasonable to expect your child to control their behavior, be sure they know that they can still share whatever feelings they are having. Yes, they also need to regulate their emotions and the actions they have in response to them. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be annoyed that the line at the bank is so long or frustrated that the restaurant doesn’t serve hamburgers.

“Aim to be accessible, approachable, and willing to listen without judging or reacting too quickly,” advises Dr. Sheff. If your child knows they can tell you how they feel, they may be less inclined to act out.

For example, if they wish they could have a candy bar, you can tell them that it’s okay to tell you that really want a candy bar or that they’re mad or sad that they can’t have one. You can respond with something like, “I know you would really like some candy. Candy tastes really good, and it’s hard not to get what you want. You can’t have one right now, but it’s fine for you to be upset about not getting one.”

Disciplining your child outside of the home can be especially stressful. It’s certainly challenging to parent when you feel the eyes of the world on you and your child. However, the key is to stick to your typical discipline techniques—and keep your eye on your long-term goals. Plus, preparing your child with what to expect on your outing, your expectations for them, and the consequences for misbehavior can help head off potential issues before they start.
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