There is an old saying “Children should be seen, not heard.” Well, with three boys I have quite the herd, but they are generally very well behaved in public. There is a good reason they are generally well behaved in public too—they have been out in public frequently since they were infants. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter lately I have seen a number of complaints about children in public. I would wager a guess that most of the complainers do not have children based on their gripes.
The fact is, if you want a 6-year-old who knows how to sit quietly in a restaurant you need to start taking him to restaurants before that. If you want your 4-year-old to wait patiently in line at a store, he needs to learn that at a younger age. I have witnessed toddlers behaving better than teens. A child’s age has very little to do with their ability to behave well in public. I do agree with the adage “children should be seen, not heard,” especially the part about children being seen.
Training your child to behave in public
First some tips, based on my experience…
- Set your child up to succeed: Take your child out on days that he is well rested, healthy, and well fed (if you are shopping). Try to avoid going out during nap time. Catch your child at their best moments. Remember that even the best kids have bad days, and even to worst kids have good days.
- Pick an appropriate location: I’ll go into this more later, but generally pick a kid-friendly location. Someplace your child can be a child without causing too much of a disruption.
- Set up rules before you arrive: I usually outline our errand before we leave the house, and then again before we get out of the car. For example, “We need to get diapers, look at shoes, and get juice.” I usually also offer the incentive of looking at toys if we have time and they are well behaved. It is important to let them know that we are not buying any toys or treats ahead of time. This helps to prevent melt-downs in the toy aisle. If it is not a great time for shopping, but the errand must be done I remind them exactly what I expect (no running, walk with mommy, no shouting. Etc.). It has been quite some time since I have needed to define good behavior for my older boys, but the baby is getting to be the age that he can understand these things.
- Offer incentives, but don’t bribe them: This can be a little confusing, but it is all in the timing. An incentive is offered at the start of the trip, in the car or while getting the cart. “If you behave you may ride the pony.” A bribe is offered after the bad behavior has started “I will get you a juice if you stop running.” There is a subtle difference, but the kids know that one is a reward for good behavior and the other is a reward for driving Mommy crazy. (On a side note: don’t beat yourself up if you have to get milk today and you end up bribing your kid just so you can get through the checkout line in one piece. Let it go—you’ll do better next time)
- Reward good behavior: I still point out to my 7-year-old when he has been exceptionally well behaved. Usually praise is all the reward the boys need, but sometimes I’ll surprise them with a bottle of juice or a small toy from the checkout line. If they ask for a treat at the end of the trip I will allow or not allow it citing their behavior.
- Be flexible: Sometimes behavior can seem turn on a dime for the worse (there are clues, watch for them), be prepared to leave if behavior gets out of hand for the location.
Location, Location, Location…
I am going to break these down into a few categories: Beginner, Intermediate, and Experienced. I am of the opinion, that with the exception of some content, there is not anyplace your children should not be able to go if they can behave.
If you are not a parent, and want to avoid ill-behaved children all together, here places to avoid. You will get little to no sympathy for encountering less than perfect angels here.
If you are a parent looking for someplace you should be able to go without offending the childless here are some places I would consider good. These are places your child can learn how to behave.
- Shopping: I have found shopping trips to be the best place to start behavior training as they do not require the child to sit still, only to restrain from running. If a store exclusively sells children’s items or has a children’s dept., a toy dept., and sells diapers, this is family territory. Some examples would be Target, Walmart, or Toys ‘R Us. This is a store parents can take their kids as they are learning how to behave. If you visit these stores regularly you will witness temper tantrums and children running and being loud.
- Dining out: If you want a quiet dinner do not go to a restaurant on “kids eat free night.” This is the perfect time to acclimate toddlers or older children to eating out. Other visitors should expect the restaurant to be louder than normal on this night.
- Entertainment: The drive-in or week-day matinee of kids movies or live shows fall very firmly in kid’s territory. The drive-in was created for the purpose of allowing parents to take their kids to the movies and to see movies while their kids slept in the car. I would also categorize most sporting events, which are loud by their very nature, to be ok for kids.
- As a general rule anyplace outside is kid friendly, the park, the zoo, etc. (But you smart folks already knew that!)
These are places that do call for good behavior, but still should offer some wiggle room for kids to be kids. Be sure to put a stop to rambunctiousness ASAP.
If you are out at these locations without and a parent is doing their best, try to cut them a little slack. Parenting is tough work. Society will benefit from children learning how to behave, but every kid still has a few tough days and makes a few mistakes. We don’t want you to have to deal with their bad behavior anymore than you do.
- Shopping: If a store has a children’s dept., a toy dept., or sells diapers, this is a middle ground. Shopping in the misses dept at Kohl’s does require a quiet and mostly still child, but if they are talking a little louder or moving a little faster (not running and screaming) in the children’s/toy dept. that is ok.
- Dining Out: Generally, I would say any restaurant that has a kids menu with crayons is a good place to take young children, although you have to use your judgment on what level of fidgeting or loudness is appropriate at any given time. Restaurants like Chilli’s or Applebee’s may call for different levels of good behavior based on the time of day and ambient noise. Even the location of a corner booth or a central table may have different demands on your child. Be prepared to take the child out if he gets too loud.
- Entertainment: G or PG movies/theater at any time, week-day matinee of other shows. You know your own kid, you are the best judge of whether or not something is appropriate for your kid, and how much your kid is actually going to pick up from a movie. I have taken the boys to PG13 movies in the middle of the day during the week. The movies are not as crowded then which puts less pressure on your child to be perfectly behaved, which actually makes it easier for them to behave well. It is harder to behave in a crowded theater, but if you are seeing a kid’s show you are going to have to expect kids to be there, sorry!
These are places that require your child to be on their very best behavior, and that very best behavior is to behave like an adult. If you are taking your child here be prepared to remove the child at the very first signs of bad behavior.
If you see a child here, don’t automatically assume the worse, I have taken young kids into all of these situations and not only did we not disrupt the public, we have been complemented on our behavior. Yes, someone at these locations is well within their rights to complain if a child is misbehaving, but not just because a child is present. Give the family the benefit of the doubt to begin with.
- Shopping: Boutiques and antique stores are filled with breakable items and other delicacies that should not have sticky fingers all over them. Clientele here is expecting a quiet and serene experience. The most important thing to enforce here: No Touching!
- Dining out: If there is no special kid’s menu, or it is only printed at the bottom of the regular menu, then this restaurant is not going to be very forgiving of fidgety kids. I would not recommend eating out at a place like this without two adults, that way someone can stay behind to pay the check and box up un-eaten dinners if necessary.
- Entertainment: I know the movies are considered by many to be adult-only territory, but I disagree. Again, you do have to be prepared to leave at the very first sign of bad behavior. Sit on the aisle, not too far from the exit, so you can get out fast if the child starts to act up. You are the best judge of whether the content of the movie is ok for your family. Honestly, to see a movie for adults with a baby or toddler, I would recommend going after the child’s bed time if he will stay asleep. Movies and live theater call for the highest level of discipline, but if your kid can handle it I say go for it!
So that’s it. That’s my two cents on children being seen in public. I suppose I should add that infants who will take a pacifier, bottle, or breast and be quiet should be welcome anywhere, but a colicky baby is best left at home except in the most dire circumstances. As always, this is what works for my family. Yes, I can take my 7 and 5 year old sons into expert locations sometimes, but there are also days I would cringe to take them to a beginner location. Such is the nature of childhood. You know your children, you know what they are capable of, you know what is best for your family.