If you are the parent of a child that is nearly impossible to take out in public without some sort of melt down – there is hope! It can feel like you will never have a peaceful meal or shopping excursion until you send that kid away to college but there are things you can do that will help.
The very first thing to realize is that you are not alone. Imperfect families are the rule, not the exception. Those glossy ads in magazines that show perfectly dressed families in restaurants without a single spill on the table, no stains on their clothes, no children wandering away from the table and moms smiling as they sip an iced tea are nonsense! More than likely there will be more food under the table than in the kid’s stomach and mom will be taking gulps of an apple martini and considering sneaking a sip to the kiddos to get them to sleep tonight. It is hard to handle dealing with bad behavior out in public but it is perfectly normal to feel embarrassed and think that this kind of thing only happens to you. Take heart, it happens to everyone!
The next thing you need to realize is that making things better when you are dealing with issues out in public will be just as much (or more) about changing your behavior as it is about changing your child’s behavior. Kids do not have fully developed brains and they cannot always grasp the concept of keeping their feelings in check. That is when parents have to change the way they think and react to the behaviors to make things better. Here are some steps to take:
- Prep before you go out. You need to bring some things to keep your child occupied. This does not mean a tablet to play video games and watch movies. This can be a solution for parents on occasion but the best thing is to bring something that is interactive and includes all of the members of the family. Your child will respond better to a game that you play with them than handing them something to do alone and expecting them not to interrupt while you talk on your phone. Throwing in a learning opportunity along with the fun is not a bad idea either. For example, you can ask your child to name 5 things that are blue in a restaurant. This helps them with recognizing colors and counting. You can even offer a prize if they get it right – find 5 things that are each color of the rainbow and we will get dessert after dinner.
- Talk before you go out. Make sure your child knows the ground rules for how to behave. If you expect proper manners like saying “please” and “thank you”, using your napkin and talking with your inside voice, then make sure you remind them of this before you go out. Kids need reminders and sometimes telling them things right before you get to your destination makes it easier for them to remember. Yes, we would love it if great manners just came second nature but you need to keep in mind that they are kids and they need our help to do the right thing.
- Distraction and redirection are powerful tools. If your child is starting to get tired or acting out, don’t wait until it turns into a full blown temper tantrum. You can jump in right away and talk about what they want to do when you get home or over the weekend. You can distract them by asking them crazy questions like “what would you do if you had a million dollars?” You can play the would you rather game. “Would you rather have the hiccups for a whole day or would you rather eat broccoli for breakfast, lunch and dinner?”
- Consider how your child might be feeling. People cannot help the way they feel and children are no exception. Instead of getting instantly mad because your child is giving you an attitude, ask them what is going on and why they are feeling mad. They may not want to talk about it out in public but if you can at least get them to realize that you understand they are tired or bored then they will often calm down. Children don’t like to feel like no one is listening to them so pay attention when they tell you how they feel.
- Do what you need to do. If your kiddo gets tire while you are out and you know that this will lead to poor behavior, then let them lay down in the booth at the restaurant. Who cares what other people think? If your child says they have to use the bathroom 3 times while you are at dinner, keep taking them to the bathroom. It can be annoying but maybe they have a stomach ache and are constipated but they don’t know how to tell you that. They could just be trying to get attention or like playing in the sink when they wash their hands but you don’t know so you need to listen to them. If your child is fussing because they say they are hot, take them outside for a quick walk until the food comes to the table. Doing what it takes to make your child feel better is not spoiling them or giving in to them. It is a simple thing to do that can make the evening much more enjoyable for everyone.
- Reward good behavior. This is something that parents have heard about for years but have a hard time remembering and putting into practice. You may be happy when you see your child behaving but you might not notice it as much as you will notice when they are misbehaving. That instinct to jump in and say something when you see your child doing something they are not supposed to comes quicker than the instinct to praise. When you are out shopping and your child is helping you put things in the cart, make sure to tell them how much you appreciate their help and how much fun you are having with them. This might help avoid the other scenario which is them grabbing everything they want off the shelf. If your child says please and thank you while out to dinner, make sure to tell them what a good job they did and that because of those nice manners, they can get dessert or you can read an extra story to them at bedtime that night.
- Behavior is bad but kids are not. It is really important to make this distinction when disciplining your kids. If your kid is yelling that they want to go home when the appetizers are barely being served, that could be described as bad behavior and you might say that to your child. Make sure they know that you are referring to what they did as bad or a bad idea. If kids feel like you are calling them bad it is terrible for their self-esteem. Some stubborn kids will take the attitude, “Well, if they think I am a bad kid then I may as well BE a bad kid.” Even the sweetest and most well behaved child will have a bad day or bad incident when they are tired, overwhelmed or frustrated. It certainly does not mean they have turned into a bad kid. This rule applies to kids who have a melt down every time you go out to dinner too.
- Don’t tempt them. If you know that every time you go out to dinner your child pours the salt on the table, move the salt off the table as soon as you sit down. Yes, you need to teach them right from wrong eventually but if they are still young and cannot really understand the harm in what they are doing, then you need to take the temptation away from them. If your child always spills their food off their plate onto the table and you don’t want them to eat off the table, then you need to bring some of those disposable table mats that stick to the table. Parents need to have some accountability for what their kids are prone to do and then make arrangements to help eliminate them.
- Pick your battles. If your child likes to take all of the sugar packets out of the little container and put them on the table when you eat in restaurants, so what? As long as they put them back, it is not a big enough problem to worry about. In fact, you can turn that into a distracting activity by building a house with the packets (like a house of cards). You can time them on how quickly they can put all of the packets back in the container and reward them on the best time. Little annoyances do not always need to be addressed. Sometimes you should ignore little things that do not put anyone in harm or lead to worse behaviors and only focus on those that you really need to address. For example, if your child leans their chair back all of the time in a restaurant, you need to address that because they could fall and get hurt, break the chair or trip someone.
- Stay home. This is not to suggest that you need to change the entire way you live and your plans every time. However, there are times when you need to admit that going out might not be a great idea and you are only asking for trouble if you go. If you know that your child missed their nap and is always cranky when tired, then you need to stay home for dinner that night. If your child is just finishing up a cold and they have not had much of an appetite, then you are wasting your time in trying to go out for a peaceful family meal and forcing them to eat when you know it probably will not work out. No matter how much you might have wanted a night out instead of cooking at home, sometimes you need to change your plans and realize that going out will be even worse. Order pizza!
- Trick them. Yes, that’s right, trick your children. I once saw a dad and his little boy in a rather nice restaurant. The little boy was probably about 3 years old. Prime age for acting out. The boy took his shirt off at the table just as they were ordering their food. Most parents would freak out and yell for him to put his shirt back on right away. This genius dad just calmly ordered their food and then waited a few minutes before saying “Gosh, it is really cold in this restaurant”. He even shivered and rubbed his arms like he was cold. Of course, the little boy wanted to be just like his dad and so he said, “Yeah, daddy, it is cold in here” and put his shirt back on! Being that creative on the fly is not easy but there are times when a little imagination can work wonders.
Being a parent is not easy and having a child melt down while out in public is one of our biggest fears. The bad news is; it WILL happen sometime in your life if you have kids. The good news is that it can sometimes be avoided with some careful planning ahead of time. If it still happens, do not worry about what others think, just try some of the ideas from above and you can make the best of the situation and make your time out with your kids lots of fun.