“You’re Bothering Other People!” 10 Ways to Teach Children How to Act in Public

How Can Parents Control Their Children’s Inappropriate Public Behavior?

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

Libraries. Restaurants. Grocery Stores. The Post Office. Some parents cringe when they have to take their children out in public.  Of course, it doesn’t tend to compare to the amount of cringing that happens among people who are frequenting these destinations sans kids and hoping for quiet sanity.

My husband, Jason, contacted me from the library yesterday, where he loves to do work for Powerful Words, as it’s typically a lovely place to work.

“Today must be Allow your Child or Teen to be Loud, Obnoxious and Unbearable Day (Note: How about we call that A.C.T.2.L.O.U.D ?) at the library.” He went on to say; “One parent walked up to her 4 children and said ‘I can hear you all the way across the library!’ and then walked away, only to have them continue shouting and banging on the tables. And it wasn’t just the kids! A librarian actually needed to discipline a father for speaking extremely loudly to his children about where they were going to go next and what they were going to do for the rest of the day (not that it helped)! I’m coming home.”

I know, many of the parents and educators are nodding their heads out there—knowing specific people who are guilty of celebrating their own ACT2LOUD in public spaces. Perhaps it’s your neighbor. Perhaps it’s someone you know from school. Hey—perhaps it’s you. Others of you might be thinking “get real!” and folding your arms in frustration at those adults who shoot them dirty looks when certain (*ahem*) children get out of hand  —or worse yet have a nasty meltdown. Where do you fall?

Jason and I recall when we were young and our Moms would “lose their lips” over such behavior (you know that look?). My Mom would say; “Robyn! You are bothering other people” and to “stop it immediately if you want to stay here” (where it was safe and we could still steer clear of “trouble”). Yes, that typically stopped us in our tracks. To borrow a phrase from recent years, “you had me at…Robyn!”).

So let’s discuss some tactics to nip this problem in the bud.

  1. Keep Reasonable Expectations: Young children can only tolerate so many errands and so much “being quiet.” We can’t expect toddlers to act like teens. Therefore, be sure that you’re not requiring young children to wait around for hours while you jump from place to place without a peep. They need a break and they need to space to act like…children. That being said, that space shouldn’t be the library or somebody’s store. Be certain to put a stop at the park or the playground in your day if you have a lot of errands to do or secure childcare for at least an hour or two where your children can play.
  2. Expect the best: Don’t tell them that you don’t trust that they’ll be able to be respectful out in public! Children can be well behaved and you should let them know that you know they can do it! As you know, we believe in teaching Powerful Words and helping children be their best. If you are encouraging your children to follow what your instructors and teachers are saying about respect, responsibility, self control, and other Powerful Words, your children will rise to the occasion. Give them the opportunity to show you what they can do.
  3. Practice at Home: I’ve gone over this is my presentations with parent groups—if you don’t practice what you want to see at home, they won’t show it to you in public. For example, when pressed, parents will tell me that they don’t ask their children to sit at the dinner table and eat dinner. Yet, they get angry when their children run around and yell at a restaurant (which is both dangerous and annoying). Whether you want your children to be respectful and responsible at a store, library, restaurant or friend’s home, you must have them practice what you want to see from them at home first.
  4. Practice when you don’t NEED to be there: Parents often go to these destinations only when they NEED to be there. However, that’s no place to teach positive behavior. Think about it—you wouldn’t expect your child to take a math test before learning how to do the math, right? Go to the library on an off day so that you can give your child full attention and show them what to expect. Perhaps s/he will only be ready to behave for 60 seconds at first—maybe s/he’ll be ready for 5 minutes the next time—or 15—or 30—but you need to start somewhere and it’s not always at the top!
  5. Start young: When children learn what is expected of them when they are young, it’s much easier for them to stay on the respectful path. When we make excuses for children because they are still in preschool, kindergarten, first grade, 4th grade, etc, never expecting them to rise to the occasion, it’s much easier for them to keep relying on those excuses rather than work on getting better. I hate to say it but this is a form of helicopter parenting . Nobody should expect perfection from children but starting young, bit by bit, can help them to strengthen their character and become their best.
  6. Discuss it before you go inside: Before you leave the house, while you’re in the car, and when you get to your destination are all times that you can talk about what kind of behavior is needed once you enter a public domain. Don’t simply preach—ask questions. How should we act when we go into the library? Why do you think that’s so important? What happens when we’re too loud? What kind of voice should we use? When you have these types of conversations, even the youngest children will know what you and others expect from them when they’re in public.
  7. Be prepared to Leave: If you’re children start yelling and acting up, you must be prepared to leave the premises. If you’re following this list of tips, you’ve already explained the expectations—so if they don’t follow through, there must be consequences. You want them to be on your terms—rather than being asked to leave, don’t you? Otherwise, rules are meaningless, aren’t they? It may be inconvenient, but it’s necessary. If you simply think your child needs a time out, you don’t have to leave completely. Instead, you can say, “You are being too loud and you need a break. Let’s go outside for a few minutes until you’re ready to come back in and follow the rules.” At that point, you can gage whether they need to run around a little or if they simply needed to know you were serious when you said that public rules need to be respected.
  8. Correct, Inspect, and Enforce: As we say in Powerful Words, “you must inspect what you expect” because children tend to “respect what you inspect.” What do I mean by that? If you ask someone to behave a certain way and then walk away, never inspecting if they are actually following the rules (as the parent did in the library), then children often won’t follow through. So, if you give a rule, peek in and make sure it’s being followed. If it’s not, correct it, and try again. If that doesn’t work—go back to rule number 7 (leave) and rules numbers 3 and 4 (Practice, Practice!)
  9. Praise the positive: If your children do a good job, even if it’s not for as long as you would have liked, be sure to tell them you noticed! Children like to be noticed when they’re doing something right. Let them know that you’re proud of them and that they acted respectfully and responsibly. Of course, that means that they will be given more privileges like going to other “grown up” public places in the future like a nice restaurant, a show, or *gasp* an airplane where they can put their positive behavior into overdrive.
  10. Be a positive role model: Always remember that your children are watching you to see how to act. Actions always speak louder than words. If you tell them they must keep their voices down in the library but then yell across the building to them, you are being a poor example! If you tell them that it’s rude to talk in the movie theater, don’t do it yourself! And if you think it’s uncouth to air dirty laundry and fight in public, refrain from engaging in this type of exchange yourself! Children aren’t the only ones that need to act respectfully and responsibly when out in public—we all do—and what we do translates seamlessly when little eyes are watching and little ears are listening to everything you do and say!

In the end, it’s our responsibility to teach our children how to behave out in public. Be consistent and stick to what you say.

Please provide your stories, comments, and tips for all of us below!

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11 Responses

  1. Great job of summarizing all the points. As an ‘older’ mom of four, with two out of the house now, I can attest to the validity of the steps listed here. Proactive parenting is the only way to go!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Deb. We all need to remember these steps whether we are new parents or older parents– since older parents become grandparents a lot of the time!

    Dr. Robyn

  3. I agree. And the practicing part is very essential. We’re slowly working on that with our 20 month old (the one we wrote the post about…”we have one of *those* kids”). It’s so different with her than with our oldest though. Our first-born was (and still is) very compliant and well mannered. We thought taking kids out in public was such an easy thing. Now, God has humbled us with her sister, and we are actually trying to practice what we read with the first one (but never really had to put into place that much).

  4. HI Vicki-

    Yes, children do tend to vary from person to person and what seems easy for one may not be for another. Back to the drawing board! Just think how satisfied you’ll feel when your second one achieves the feat of NOT being “that one” in public!

    Just an additional note for people with siblings in the family- sometimes, when children feel compared with their siblings, they’ll go in the exact opposite direction. The same thing is true for labeling. We want to steer clear of both of those things.

    Talk to you soon!
    Dr. Robyn

  5. I agree with the whole idea that siblings can be so different. As a teacher I see that a lot, but I also know from my own experience. When I was little I was at a family dinner. Everyone was there…aunts, uncles ,…grandparents etc. My younger sister basically threw a fit and screamed and cried and then finally threw an entire plate of food into my dad’s lap. My dad took her outside and waited until my mom had finished eating and then they switched. Now that’s not something I ever did. I was definitely the more compliant one. Even today my sister and I are complete opposites.

  6. Yes– like night and day sometimes. Of course, it’s great to be prepared and accepting of these differences. Angela– your parents must have had a lot of tolerance– or a lot of wine? 🙂

    The problem I find at times is that once siblings fall into opposite patterns, some parents come to EXPECT opposite behaviors– which isn’t always fair. It’s hard to go against parental expectations– even when they’re negative.Self fulfilling prophecies.

    You being a teacher– you know that all children need to be taught how to be respectful– but they may need to be taught in different ways– and they may need to express their respect in different ways from each other. All tactics won’t work for all children– just because something worked with one sibling (in your case, simple corrections, modeling may have worked), it may not work with another! Different personalities, different temperaments!

    We must meet children where they are– and that’s not always where we wish they were!

    Dr. Robyn

  7. I do not have children, but I am a teacher and a very active auntie. I’ve found praising and prepping kids is the best way to get good behavior. I tell my students that they are the BEST, the SMARTEST, etc. and they start to believe it. I never have a discipline problem on a field trip or at an assembly because they know the expectations. The same student with a different teacher for the assembly will often get kicked out!

  8. Hi Elizabeth-

    As a teacher and active auntie, we have no doubt that you have some great ideas about working with children and inspiring them to be their best. I like setting the expectation that the children are smart, capable, and resourceful. “Expecting the best” is a self fulfilling prophesy. When they know you think they can do it– they tend to want to live up to the expectation!

    Thanks for your comment-
    Dr. Robyn

  9. […] Here is the link to Dr. Robyn’s blog post “You’re Bothering Other People!” 10 Ways to Teach Children How to Act in Public.” […]

  10. […] wrong as of yet.  Perhaps they’re trying to get your attention.  Perhaps they simply lack self control at this time.  Whatever the reason, we know we want to teach our kids that stealing is […]

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