Do you spend every family outing managing misbehaving kids? Learn what to do when kids don’t listen in public so you can enjoy your time together.
SSBE reader Sharon wrote in with a situation many of us can relate to: kids who don’t listen to us in public. Maybe you’ve had to raise your voice just to get them to hear you. They run away when you need them to stay put. Or they touch things they should leave alone.
I’ve seen similar behavior myself, whether with my own kids or from observing others. Kids who don’t stay seated at story time despite parents telling them to pay attention. Or the ones who throw toys and misbehave, all with a mischievous smile on their face.
With behavior like this, it’s no wonder we don’t feel like taking kids out in public sometimes.
When kids don’t listen in public
So, are we stuck at home to avoid the hassles of being out in public? Or are our outings destined to feel horrible each time we go out?
Not at all.
I’ve found these following tips to be the most effective with helping my kids behave in public:
#1: Set expectations before you arrive
“It’ll just be at the pumpkin patch with all three of you,” I warned my kids. “So I need you to stay close to me and not run off, even if you see something exciting.”
We had been planning a visit to the pumpkin patch to play and select one to take home. But as I usually do when I’m the only adult on duty, I set my expectations before we arrive. They understand their responsibilities before the excitement of the place drowns them out.
Long before you step foot outside, describe how you expect your kids to behave. Lay out the rules, such as holding hands when you instruct them to, or staying at the park for only one hour. Maybe they need to keep their hands off of the museum exhibits, or be quiet at the library.
Your kids will be more receptive to listening when they know how you expect them to behave from the start.
#2: Define the consequences before they misbehave
Let your kids know the consequences that will happen if they don’t listen.
Why say it before they even misbehave? Letting them know beforehand seems more like an agreement, like a pact. You’re taking them to a place with the expectation of appropriate behavior. If they don’t listen, then the consequence you’ve already laid out will happen.
Telling them the consequence after they’ve misbehaved can feel like a threat. It’ll still work, but it can also feel like it came out of nowhere, and your kids might resist even further.
And make the consequences a natural one to the behavior. You might tell your kids you’ll leave the library if they keep yelling. Leaving the library is a natural consequence more so than taking away their train set at home.
#3: Show empathy
So, let’s say your child arrived at the carnival and is getting to be a handful. He’s yelling in excitement, running to the booths and not following expectations.
It’s tempting to go into discipline mode right away. Before you do that though, show your child empathy. This allows you to see your child’s behavior from a new point of view. And it show him you understand what he’s feeling.
You might tell your child, “I can see you’re so excited to be here at the carnival! You can’t wait to go on the rides.” He isn’t out to get a rise out of you, but is excited to be at the carnival. He’s having a difficult time containing his emotions, not misbehaving for the sake of it.
When you lay out the rules, he’ll feel understood. You might say, “You can’t just run off though. I might lose you, or you might not know where to go. It’s important you stay near me at all times, even if you’re excited.”
Other emotions that empathy can reveal include feeling tired, hungry or overstimulated. Placing yourself in your child’s shoes can shed light on why he may be behaving this way.
#4: Correct the behavior
It’s not enough to call our kids out on their behavior. It’s up to us to correct and show them a more appropriate way to behave.
Give a reason why their behavior is inappropriate, and not just “because I said so.” Knowing the reason appeals to your child’s logical side and makes him more likely to listen.
Then, offer different ways to behave, or reiterate the behavior you expect. Let’s say your child is goofing off instead of standing in line at the morning school assembly. He’s roughhousing other children and throwing his backpack on the floor.
Let him know the correct way to behave. That he should stand facing the teachers with his backpack on his back. That he should remain quiet while the teachers are talking. He can even fiddle with his key chain to contain his energy while he listens.
It’s not enough to tell our kids, “Don’t do that.” We also need to let them know explicitly how they should behave.
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? Learn the ONE effective word to get them to listen and follow instructions. Download my FREE handout and worksheet below:
#5: Follow through with consequences
Kids might keep misbehaving because we don’t enforce the consequences we said we would. As difficult as it is to leave the library, we need to do so if they continue to yell and misbehave.
Not following through sends the message that we are all empty threats. Kids will continue to misbehave, not just at the current location but in future outings as well. While you can be flexible from time to time, err on the side of standing your ground.
What to do if leaving isn’t an option? Let’s say you’re at a wedding, and you can’t just up and leave. Give another similar consequence, like moving him away from the crowds for a few minutes.
#6: Show respect
It’s pretty hard to show respect to our kids when they’re not behaving as we expect them to. We feel frustrated, annoyed, even attacked when they don’t listen.
But it’s during these times that we need to be even more patient and respectful. If we spiral down, it’ll only lead to even more misbehavior on their part.
Showing respect doesn’t mean coddling or enabling the behavior. Instead, it’s being firm but kind as we speak to them and lay out the rules. Being matter-of-fact as we follow through with consequences and leave the park or library.
Model the behavior you want your child to do so he has an example to base his actions on.
#7: What is their behavior telling you?
Let’s say you’ve shown empathy and can see that your child is just trying to get a rise out of you. Ask yourself what that kind of behavior means. What is his deliberate misbehavior revealing?
For instance, could he need more positive or one-on-one attention at home? Do you need to put your foot down more often because he needs boundaries?
Look at your child’s behavior not so much as the hassle that it can be, especially in public. Instead, it’s a sign of something else you may need to address. They’re there to signal a need he may have, or a change you should make.
Dealing with misbehaving kids in public is a challenge, no doubt. It makes you not want to take them anywhere, especially when a fun outing turns into a nightmare.
But you can help change your child’s behavior in public with a few tips. Begin your outings by setting expectations and the consequences for not following them. Follow through with consequences if they don’t listen, no matter how difficult it may be.
Show empathy and respect when you interact with your child. This will help make your relationship stronger and correct their behavior. And finally, see what their antics may be telling you. You might realize there’s more to their behavior than not listening.
Hopefully these tips will make your next outing the fun family event it’s supposed to be.
Get more tips:
- Do You Know What to Do when Your Child Acts Out in Public?
- How to Enjoy a Restaurant Meal with Kids — Even without Screens or Snacks
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- How to Run Errands with Kids (And Not Go Crazy)
- The One Mistake You’re Probably Making when Your Child Misbehaves in Front of Others
Tell me in the comments: How do you address your child’s misbehavior in public?
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