Do you know what to do when your child misbehaves in front of others? See the one mistake you may not even know you’re making.
The lady, the boy, me… we all wished we were somewhere else, not caught in this moment. Everyone stood on edge—except the father.
“No. Come back here. You need to apologize to this lady correctly,” the father said to his son, about seven-years-old.
I was alone in the baby aisle of the store when this scene played out. The boy had bumped into another woman and kept going, oblivious to having hit her on accident. The dad, meanwhile, wasn’t too happy about that.
He had his son apologize to the lady, but he wasn’t happy with his son’s mumbled version of “I’m sorry.” No, he wanted the apology said loud and clear.
Meanwhile, the lady kept reassuring the dad “It’s okay,” trying to brush it off and move on. She was probably trying to get on with her shopping instead of being privy to a parenting lesson.
The dad kept insisting until he finally heard what he felt was a good enough apology from his son before moving along.
When your child misbehaves in front of others
I understood the dad’s goal: he wanted to make sure that his son knew that he should apologize for accidents. Practicing consistency in discipline and teaching social skills are important.
I would also have encouraged my young kids to apologize in the same scenario. But when his son didn’t, he turned what ought to have been a simple mishap into an embarrassing “lesson” for his son.
Our kids will misbehave, make mistakes, and refuse to apologize—in front of strangers and people they know. And when they do, parents, please:
Don’t discipline your child in front of others.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Discipline should be a private conversation
I can see why parents would want to discipline their children right away, even in front of strangers.
We feel embarrassed about their behavior and want to make sure others know we don’t tolerate it. We want to use the opportunity to tie in a teachable moment before our kids forget. Perhaps we’re used to addressing it right away at home that we forget we have an audience with others around.
Or maybe we don’t want others to see us as the mom who doesn’t discipline her young children.
Thing is, disciplining in front of others is humiliating for your child and awkward for everyone else. It’s bad enough for her that she did something she shouldn’t have or forgot to do something she should. Now she’s put on public display.
Yes, encourage an apology, and even say “sorry” on her behalf if she doesn’t offer one on her own. But save the lesson for down the line when you’re alone with her.
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2. Your child won’t learn a lesson immediately
Want to turn this into a teachable moment? You’re probably better off waiting. Having an audience makes it less likely that your preschooler will learn a lesson in that moment.
She’s more concerned with saving face or brushing aside embarrassment. Nor does she want to be on the spot with all this negative attention. She’s not going to use the opportunity to learn how to better behave or what she could do next time.
Instead, wait until you’re alone so she’s more receptive to the lessons she could learn.
3. It’s awkward for others to witness
Disciplining your child in front of an audience places everyone else into an awkward situation. Should we stay? Do we reassure them the behavior wasn’t that bad? Are we supposed to look away and pretend we don’t hear any of it?
Not only did the little boy at the store feel uncomfortable, but so did the lady and I. Yes, the intention to correct his behavior and apologize to others is understandable. But forcing him to do so over and over so made it more awkward for everyone.
How to discipline instead
Whether bumping into someone or being outright rude, you should correct your child’s behavior. But not right then and there, and not with an audience. What should you do instead of disciplining your child in front of others?
1. Encourage an apology
Yes, encourage your child to apologize. Whether he bumped into someone or grabbed another child’s toy, do encourage him to say sorry, but don’t force it. A forced apology doesn’t send the message you’re likely trying to teach. Instead, he feels resentment and unfairness toward you and others.
2. Apologize on your child’s behalf and move on
As a matter of social courtesy, apologize on your child’s behalf if she refuses to do so on her own. The other person will feel acknowledged, and you’re also modeling for your child how to apologize in those circumstances.
3. Talk about what happened in private
You’re not letting your child “off the hook” or ignoring bad behavior by not making her apologize. She isn’t receptive to learning when she feels scolded or coerced, or shame for misbehaving. Wait until you get home or even later that night when you’re both calm to talk about what happened.
For instance, show empathy and acknowledge her excitement in showing you the cool toy she found. Then, point out that she had bumped into the lady at the grocery store on accident. Explain that when things like that happen, that we apologize as a sign of courtesy, even if it was on accident.
She’ll be more receptive to listen to your guidance and understand when the conversation is between the both of you—not with other people within earshot.
Regardless of your intentions with disciplining your child in front of others, it’s best not to do so.
Discipline is a private conversation, one where she’s better able to learn the lesson without an audience. She won’t learn the lesson right then and there when she’s embarrassed or even throwing a tantrum. Plus, it’s awkward for everyone involved, and doesn’t achieve the goal you want in having her learn a lesson.
Instead, do encourage an apology, but if she doesn’t offer one, say “sorry” on her behalf. Only down the line, even later in the day, should you talk about what happened, set boundaries, and what she can do better next time.
As much as we believe we need to discipline right away, it’s often best to do so in private. Your child is more likely to learn what to do next time—lessons she probably wouldn’t hear when she’s put on the spot in a store.
Get more tips:
- How to Discipline a 4 Year Old When Nothing Seems to Work
- 15 Principles on How to Parent Effectively
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
- How to Be the “Bad Guy” and Still Parent Effectively
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
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