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Q&A: Disciplining a Child in Public

Letting your child know your expectations before you go out in public together can act as a deterrent to inappropriate behavior.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


What should I do with a child who misbehaves at someone else’s house or at a party or in the supermarket? How do I discipline them right there in front of God and everybody?

Dennis and Barbara (in unison): You don’t. You really don’t!

Barbara: When our kids were young, one of the things that I did with them when I would take them to the grocery store is to talk to them before we even walked in the door. I would say, “We’re going to do the grocery shopping, and I am not going to buy you things that you want off the shelf. We will not buy candy and we will not buy gum. But if you are good and you obey and you allow me to do the grocery shopping, I will do something for you. We’ll go to the park or we’ll go for a walk or there will be some kind of reward.” And so by talking it through with them and letting them know ahead of time what to expect, it was much easier for them to comply.

Now that didn’t mean that they always did comply, because there were plenty of times that they would disobey or they would run around the corners to the next aisle and I couldn’t find them. I think you need to be prepared as a parent to drop your grocery shopping or quit your errands, pick your child up, and go out to the car to discipline him. Your child is far more important than grocery shopping or errands. There were times when I’ve disciplined our children in the car or taken them home and gone back to the store later, as inconvenient as it may seem.

Dennis: I would underscore the statement of preparing them ahead of time for explosive situations. I think one of the most cataclysmic points of reaction is on a Sunday morning at the two-year-old classroom. Barbara and I taught this class for a couple of years, and it was really interesting to see the fits kids would throw to try to get their way with their parents. And if you would simply take the time to tell the child, “Now here’s what is going to happen. We are going to go inside in just a moment and we’re going to drop you off at Sunday school. You can pitch all the fit you want, but Mommy and Daddy are going to worship the Lord because that’s what He wants us to do.” (And you know, there’s been no scientific evidence that brain damage occurs when kids cry in church nurseries!) And when your child cries—because he will test you—follow through with your word. And moms, you’ve got to look away! I promise you, that little guy’s eyes are firmly fixed on Mom or Dad to see, “Is my message getting through? Am I winning?” And if they see even the slightest hint of weakness, they go for the jugular!

Now, there are a lot of moms and dads who are concerned that maybe crying is reflecting something going on in the church nursery or day care. How do they balance that natural desire to protect their kids with what may just be a child’s manipulation?

Dennis: Well, I think you have to take into consideration the context. Is this occurring every time the child is separated or is it just at certain points when the child feels like he can win? You certainly need to listen carefully for emotional messages that your child sends you. But I think many times we are being manipulated by our children, not missing those signals with our kids.

You can sit down with a two-year-old after a crying episode at the nursery and say, “Now, was there anything bad about that? Was there anything that made you uncomfortable in there?” And listen to see if there are clues.

Barbara: Yes, I think that would be a good idea. You can sit down and talk with your child and pick up from him what kind of experience he had while you were gone. And again, I think we just need to be careful as parents.

Let’s say we’re at the pastor’s home for dinner. Dinner is ready and the child throws a tantrum. What do you do?

Barbara: I think I would just pick my child up and walk back to the bathroom, put him on my lap, and talk to him. I think it would depend on the relationship that we had with the family we were with. If we knew them and they knew us, I wouldn’t feel a bit hesitant about spanking my child if I felt that was what was necessary. But if it was a family that we didn’t know very well, I would be more hesitant to do that. But I would definitely pick my child up and go to another part of the house and talk to him.

Dennis: The younger the child, the sooner you must administer discipline. In other words, you must punish a two-year-old immediately after they’ve rebelled or defied you. But you can tell a five-year-old that you’ll deal with the problem when you get home.

Copyright © 2008 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

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