First, however, let us all acknowledge that most people out there understand that children are children. It is my hope that most people are understanding of the way children are and don't expect them to be perfect. I know that not all people are. There are some grandparents out there who seem to have forgotten what having young children was like. There are other people who are just plain impatient and judgemental. You can't do anything about them. Just focus on having your child behave the best you know he can and ignore the looks.
I remember one day when we were all at the library. We were working on keeping our children quiet. Our library is in a new building built just over a year ago. I can't figure out why, but they designed it so that sound echoes throughout the entire library, and the children's section is made of materials that produce and echo a lot of sound. So it can be one of those places for parents that becomes a stressful experience. This day we were picking some books to check out when in came a family with a few children. These children were all of elementary school age. I was happy to have them around making noise. They were really loud compared to my kids, and much older, so it took all focus away from my children (if there was any in the first place) :)
So the question is, what expectations can you have in public, and how to you reach them? Like I said earlier, I really have the same expectations at home as I do in public. I adjust for context. If the child is up past bedtime, I know it isn't fair to expect him to be as good as he would otherwise. If we are having dinner an hour late, I have to realize the same thing. That doesn't mean I allow inappropriate behavior, it just means I have more patience in dealing with the situation.
"Right" expectations are dependent on you. Each culture has different expectations. Each public location has its own "culture" and proper behavior. A sit-down restaurant is going to require a lot more from your child than McDonalds. You need to decide what proper expectations are. Now on to how to reach those expectations:
- Start at Home: It starts at home. You absolutely cannot expect your child to obey you better in public than he does at home. Public brings over tiredness, boredom, overstimulation, hunger, excitement, etc. If your child doesn't obey you at home, he isn't going to in public.
- Outline Expectations: If your child is old enough, sit them down and talk about the expectations you have for your trip. Children are not born knowing how to behave when they go out to eat. They are not born knowing that in a library, we whisper--they aren't even born knowing how to whisper. Tell your child what isn't allowed, and most of all tell them how to act. Show them and demonstrate. Demonstrate a whisper and have them try it out. This is Training in Times of Non-Conflict. The library is not the place to teach about whispering. Again, it starts at home.
- Prepare for Success: Avoid taking your child out when it is naptime. If you are going to be eating dinner late, offer a light snack so they won't be too hungry to obey. Set your child up for success so the time spent out in public can be more enjoyable for everyone.
- Help Them Out: If you are going out to dinner, don't expect your child to just sit there quietly the entire time with nothing to do. Help him out. If he likes to color, bring some crayons and paper. Brayden wasn't a color-er as a young toddler, so I would bring a car for him to drive around. He was expected to be quiet about it, but he had it. Also, don't break these items out as soon as you get there. Wait until you see the need, and only pull out one at a time. At restaurants, I like to delay my children from eating as long as possible. Children get full quickly and don't eat much. At a restaurant, you spend a lot more time sitting at the table than you do at home. If they eat right away, they won't be hungry by the time the main meal arrives. Also, in going out to eat, you might want to bring along some food you know your child likes. This is especially true for the baby who eats baby food and some finger foods. Bring some finger foods for the baby to eat while everyone else eats if you aren't sure the restaurant will have something your baby can eat there.
- Don't Start Something You Don't Want to Finish: I don't let my kids get out of their seats at a restaurant. If you do it once, they will want to do it every time. This is something that must start at home. My kids can't get down from the table until they are done eating, and they have to ask to get down. Remember, it starts at home. I also don't let my kids down when we are somewhere like the grocery store. They stay in the cart where I know they are safe and not grabbing things they shouldn't. Yes, the day will come when they start to walk along behind me, but that will be when I know they are 100% ready for that freedom.
- Be the Same Person: You need to have the same expectations and reactions in public as you do at home. If you give in out in public and allow behavior that you wouldn't allow at home, it won't take long for your child to put two and two together. They are smart enough to differentiate between different locations. I think one reason my kids are quite good in public is that my discipline methods are the same. I give my Mommy Glare. I take away privileges if needed. I am able to be the same. They know public is not a place where they can get away with things they couldn't otherwise.
- Maintain Expectations, But Adjust For Context: At home, our children are expected to sit still, fold their arms, and be quiet for prayers. When they (mostly Kaitlyn at this point) try to get up, I will hold her in my lap. At church, I maintain the same expectation. I will take her in my lap if she refuses to fold her arms as she should. Sometimes she will start to whine. Most of the time, she will stop after a moment. There have been a few times when she will start to then cry. At this point, I might put her down. I don't want to disrupt the prayer for everyone else while I teach my child. We can work on it more at home, if needed.
- React: When your child misbehaves, react to it. Don't be afraid. I know it can be intimidating to give your child instructions in front of people. If he doesn't obey, you might be left looking a bit silly. Have confidence in your child. Again, this must start at home. I remember when Brayden was about one year old. I remember being at friend's homes or at the park with several different moms and being faced with the decision of whether or not to instruct him to change what he was doing. I chose to do so. My heart raced a bit as I waited to see his reaction. He listened! I remember being at the park. We had just moved here and Brayden was 13 months old. The play area is not safe for a wobbly toddler and the stairs are really steep, so I instructed Brayden to stay off the stairs. I was about 20 feet from him when he approached the stairs. I called out to him and told him that was a no and he needed to stay off the stairs. The faces of the other mothers were a bit amused at first; here was this first time mother with her little 13 month old expecting him to listen to her from 20 feet a way. Well, he did it, and the faces turned from amazement to shock. Last year at the park, we experienced similar reactions with Kaitlyn. Even though they had seen it with Brayden, they were shocked to see her do it also. I think they thought I just had a good kid in Brayden, which I do, but he has been taught to be that way. And last year at the park I came to realize that my heart no longer raced when I asked my children to do something in public. I no longer hesitated in my instructions. I had reached full confidence as a mother and did not fear instructing my children in public.
- Tell What to Do: You will need to tell your child to not do X, but offer what to do also. For example, at church I say, "We don't run in the church. We walk." Just saying "We don't run" doesn't tell the child what is appropriate. All that tells him is running is not. It says nothing of skipping, jumping, hopping...what may seem obvious to you is not to your child. Your child does not have the same life experiences that you do.
- Do Not Belittle: Do not say things that are unkind toward your child. I hope you wouldn't do this at home, either, but don't do it in public. Think of how you would feel if your spouse criticized your character in public. I remember one time while shopping a mother said to her child, "You are such a brat!" I felt so sad for him. You can correct your child and instruct proper behavior while still being kind.
- Offer Praise: When your child is behaving appropriately, thank him and tell him what he is doing right. "Thank you for sitting so still. That is such a good boy." This reinforces his behavior and also gives him a clue as to what it is he is supposed to be doing.
- Practice: When I was pregnant with Brayden, I went to a women's conference. One of the speakers there was a mother of 8-10 children. They were all closely spaced and she had a few sets of twins. Life must have been hectic for her. But she was the happiest lady. She shared that when her children were young, her husband was serving in the Bishopric, which meant that during church he sat in front of the congregation, leaving her alone with all of her children. I am sure many moms would want to stay home. Others would opt for the back of the room. She decided they would sit in the front of the room. When her children did not behave as they should at church, they had church practice during the week. Each day, they would sit for an hour being quiet and still. I am sure her children quickly learned that they could either be reverent at church for that one day or practice at home for 6, plus church for the 7th. If your child has a hard time with something, practice at home.
Your child won't be perfect in public. My children are not always angels. There are days we go out and it just doesn't go well. But most of the time, they are wonderful. I often get strangers come up to me and compliment me on how well-behaved my children are. A few weeks ago, I thought my children were being rather rowdy during church. That day, I got several compliments on how great they were. Their behavior was not acceptable for my husband and me, but they still somehow managed to impress people around us--it might have been Kaitlyn's cute smile :).
The rough experiences will happen, but overall, going out in public can be something you all enjoy. You can go to restaurants and have an enjoyable meal. I know people who just don't take their children to sit-down restaurants because it is too stressful for them. You don't have to be that way. You can enjoy your time together as a family.