How to Handle a Misbehaving Child in Public?

Does your style of discipline change when you are out among other moms?

I know we’ve all been there many times—those agonizing and embarrassing moments when our children misbehave in a public.

Well, it happened to me yesterday. My son and I went to pick up my daughter from school, and I allowed both children to run around on the playground before whisking them off to my daughter’s orthodontist appointment scheduled for a half an hour after school got out.

When the time came for me to round them up and leave the playground, my daughter immediately came over. But my son, with a devilish smile on his face, looked at me and ran away to the jungle gym.

Since I was trying to get out of the school yard as quickly as possible, I put down all of the coats, backpacks, and keys that I was holding, and ran up the jungle gym to catch him.

I got to the top of the jungle gym just in time to watch him smile that same devilish smile, giggle a bit, and then slide down a slide—leaving me standing on top of the jungle gym. He took off again once his feet hit the ground.

Now, I have always been proud of my non-permissive parenting style, and am not afraid to slightly raise my voice, or threaten and carry out appropriate punishment when my children misbehave – when I am in the privacy of my own home.

I consider my children to be well-behaved and well-mannered, partly because of this. However, when misbehavior occurs in the presence of more than 20 other moms it can be a whole new ball game.

While I’ve always said that I am not self-conscious about my parenting style because I believe it is effective, I realized yesterday that if I raised my voice to my son, or threatened a time out, or to take away his favorite toy, I might be judged—and that made me uncomfortable.

So I ran down the jungle gym, caught my son, gathered my daughter, pleasantly bid the mothers farewell and marched off the playground …five minutes late to my daughter’s appointment.

That was the end of the story until I described the scene to my husband during dinner last night.

“What did you do about it?” my husband asked.

“Well, I guess nothing,” I said.

“Then, he’s going to do it again,” replied my husband.

And I realized he was right.

The problem is that it is hard to appropriately discipline my children when I'm in public where I might be around other parents who could judge my actions.

It’s also sometimes hard to think on my feet in these situations. If I had to do  it again, I would have punished my son for his blatant defiance when we returned home. But after my daughter’s appointment, and our drive home, I had completely forgotten about it.

So it turns out I don’t have the perfect solution for disciplining my child when it is necessary. Do you?

As a mom, have you ever felt self-conscious about disciplining your children when you are in public?

Devon Vida April 14, 2011 at 07:41 PM
Discipline in public can be a tricky situation, especially when you're outside of your child's school and there are other parents around. I would have handled that situation in the same way Charlotte did, and then had the same conversation about discipline with my significant other later. What exactly can you do in those instances anyway? You're in a rush to be somewhere and there's no time to enter into a will of wits with a child, plus you're just trying to get out of there so the situation doesn't escalate in front of other people. I wouldn't say that I'm self-conscious about disciplining in public generally, but it depends on where I am. Discipline in the check-out line at Wal-Mart is different than at the school playground. I certainly don't want to leave an impression on the other parents that I yell about everything, especially right after school. But then again, if I'm late for an appointment, I shouldn't care what other parents are thinking! But I still do. Rationality in these situations sounds great in a child psychology class, but doesn't really apply at school when other parents are there to watch it unfold.
Jill December 31, 2011 at 08:13 PM
I am a parent and preschool teacher. It is a hard thing. Other parents and teacher do judge parents who seem to let their child walk all over them. In preschool it is typical for a child to get in a rut about not leaving or not listening to the parent. Most parents do not handle this well. I have found the kid's mind is still in play mode so if the parent trys to turn it into a game such as pretending they can't see the child and look round the playground or classroom for them. This can speed things up. Or starting a race to the gate or car. Don't be afriad to us a ferm voice, get on their level and just saying "that is not O.K. and why such that is dangerous, or we do have to get things done, we will have other times to play. You can preagarnge a code word for them to know play time is over or what they are doing is dangerous if child is old enough.


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