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Dancing in Public: Disciplining Children

June 17, 2009

How one disciplines their children can be very personal and often reflects our core values.  Opinions and research runs a gauntlet of popular, and not so popular public dialog.  People cite Freud, the Bible, Spock, Oprah, Dr. Phil, and of course our own parent’s as we seek to find the right way to keep our children from going off the deep end of rebellion and social graces.  Conversations are nuanced and controversy abounds.

Last Monday, as I sat in the Denver REI/Starbucks, waiting for a friend and taking care of busyness online, I witnessed an event that ripped at my soul.  As a two time veteran of parenting, successfully guiding my Darling Daughter all the way to the age of four and a half and helping my Smiling Son to survive his first 21 months, I’m quite understanding when kids “meltdown.”  My usual approach is to glance over and offer a knowing smile to the frazzled parent(s).

While trying to ignore the increased cries and escalating emotions of this family, the majority of web-workers, bloggers, and business people tried to mind our own business.  But this sad situation demanded more attention than we were comfortable giving.  It’s the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to step into the fray (Which, by the way, is a very bad idea – in case you didn’t know that!).

First Contact: Less than five feet to my right was a four-year-old boy shouting “No!” over and over.  As I looked over, I saw a trendy-looking dad in his early 40s demanding that his son sit down.  The boy had a huge, cold, foamy, frap-a-something – and he was guarding it with his very heart and soul. I turned my attention back to my own doings.

Escalation Phase: Suddenly (my writing teachers in high school always cautioned against using this word to start a sentence, but that’s another issue) – Suddenly, the dad picked up this defiant little boy and plopped him down in an overstuffed leather chair.  It was at this point that I noticed this small entourage included another set of parents and several young children.  REI in general, and this Starbucks in particular attracts a fairly trendy, semi-affluent crowd.  These two families were no different.

Kids bring out the best, and the worst in our marriages: Though I was attempting to focus on my own issues, the mom, who had been nervously scurrying about, entered the fray.  The second couple sat quietly in their seats, as did their children, but you could tell they were quite aware that they were in the center ring of a three-ring circus, as about 40 people’s attention was drawn to this spectacle.  Although the mom was whispering, and was barely audible, every cell in her body was screaming at this increasingly confused boy.

Kids need boundaries: When it comes to raising children, I’m not going to debate you on spanking, time-outs, grounding, removal of privileges, or bribing the kids.  Each of these techniques have value and can also be shown to be harmful.  Each child, every situation, and all family dynamics create infinite possibilities and endless solutions.  But, sometimes it is just easy to see that the techniques being employed are not working and are counter-productive.

Non-Compliance: The crying continued, and though it was difficult to ascertain exactly what behavior the parents were seeking to illicit, apparently the boy was not 100% compliant. (Note to Parents: Children are in training to be adults, sometimes they are doing their best and we have to accept that with encouragement to continue to improve and grow)  As I glanced at the second set of parents, I saw they were doing their best to look like innocent bystanders.  I think I even detected wishes that they could just leave.  Bless their hearts, they did their best to pretend as if they were invisible.

Crisis Mode: With what seemed to be no warning, the dad grabbed this innocent four-year-old by the arm and lifted him out of his seat.  He dragged him through the air and out the nearest exit – wrestling with the boy as he crashed through the door to the patio.  As this sweet little boy cried out, the dad put him into a patio seat with force.  I was squirming in my front-row seat.  I was under the belief that yanking kids around by one arm, as a method of controlling one’s kids, had fallen by the wayside after I was a kid.

Party on the Patio: The kid was forcibly sat into a patio chair and the dad sat next to him glaring. Though dad’s face looked stressed, it didn’t appear angry.  However, all of his actions and body-language revealed his rage.  They obviously didn’t have this time-out system well developed.  The scurrying mom, burst out the door to the patio and went into mother-bear, protector mode.  While hovering over the sobbing boy, the again was shouting – but this time at the dad.  Her whispered shouts now resulted in little-boy defiant looks on the dad’s face.  In less than five-minutes this confused little boy went from being the center of attention to the pawn of this uncentered marriage.

Hiding the Elephant: While 40 anxious bystanders tried desperately not to watch, this family attempted to make the elephant in the room disappear.  Much to the disdain and consternation of the chastised dad, mommy lifted her little boy into her arms and rescued him from the raging dad.  She carried him back into the cafe and cuddled him on the same leather chair he refused to sit in earlier.  Whatever behavior they were seeking earlier seemed to no longer be an issue.  Dad reentered the circus ring, and after some brief moments of pacing, found his own seat to sulk in.  The two families sat in relative silence for about 5-10 minutes before making their exit.

While I mean no disrespect to these haggard parents.  I too have been in situations where I was having enough trouble controlling my own issues and emotions, not to mention making my children behave.  Sometimes it seems as if our children have been replaced by aliens and our brains have been removed.  Often the best children will turn into little emotional terrorists, and our well-intentioned parenting skills will appear to be acquired from a Friday the 13th movie.

However, there are some lessons I’m trying to learn from this event.

  • Don’t try to teach new skills and behaviors outside of the home, or while on vacation. While these situations may create new opportunities for learning, be patient and try to use the event/behavior as a window into new lessons that would best be taught at home.
  • Be patient, always.  Safety aside, be tolerant with kids who try to use a public venue to rebel.  They are testing you and exploring their own boundaries.  Obviously, if they are running out into the parking lot, street, or other unsafe area, do whatever it takes to protect them.  However, coffee shop meltdowns are to be expected.
  • Don’t Intervene and subvert your spouse. As a parent, it is very difficult to watch our spouses mismanage a situation.  Just as it is difficult for a stranger not to (and very unwisely) intervene, the second spouse should stay out of it.  Unless the child’s safety is immediately threatened, make a mental note to discuss this in private.  When the parents argue over their children, the children learn to use this to play the parents against each other.  This couple should have allowed their (former?) friends to supervise their boy, then they should have taken their disagreement outside, in private.
  • Lead your children, don’t control them.  Obviously this is age and maturity dependent, but control is a very blunt teaching tool.  Child rearing, discipline, and teaching are very nuanced arts.  It makes little sense to have your children jump through hoops in the three-ring circus of the public spotlight.  Really, you can deal with obedience, sharing, and most of the other fine arts at home.
  • Be very careful about using physical methods to control and/or discipline your children in public.  While your use of corporal punishment may be proper, seldom used, and without anger, the court of public opinion is not with you on this.  Besides, doing it public adds an element of public humiliation that is rarely going to imprint well on your child’s psyche.  (Note: While the parents mentioned above did not resort to corporal punishment, I had an urge to call the police when the boy was yanked out of his seat by one arm.  I’ve never had that urge before, and I didn’t follow through because it wasn’t quite necessary; almost, but not quite.  However, the above situation makes me wonder about what happens at home)
  • Never yank your children around by the arm.  This is dangerous and is only done out of anger.  You already know that you should never discipline your children when you are angry.  You already know that the purpose of discipline is to teach, not to punish.  If you are feeling angry, tag team with the other parent (or another adult) – don’t get into a battle of wills with your child – you will never win.  Obviously if you need to pull them away from a speeding bus, or pull them out of a well, you may make an exception.  But this demonstration told me more about the dad’s anger than it did about his willingness to reach his son.
  • Work out your issues.  Growing up is hard.  If you haven’t worked out your own child-parent issues, do it now.  If you have issues in your marriage, work it out.  Staying in a marriage “for the sake of the children,” is not about geography.  Staying in a marriage is about the integrity to work through your issues, compromise, forgive, and release the resentments.
  • Stay rested and learn to manage your stress. Our lives are busy, hectic, and NOT stress free.  Sleep is hard to come by, and stress management is even more difficult to achieve.  However, as I’ve said before, one of the best things you can do for your children, your spouse, and for yourself, is to slow down and enjoy the journey.  Get enough sleep, exercise, and quiet time for yourself.  Make time with and for your family your highest priority,  This will allow you to be more patient, tolerant, and balanced.

Please understand that I’m not trying to criticize the parents above.  When my Darling Daughter was just a toddler, she was already demonstrating the strong-willed stubbornness of being the first-born of two strong-willed, first-born parents.  I remember staying at a Marriott Suites Hotel in the Silicon Valley.  At three AM, she wanted to nurse, she wanted her mommy, and she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Photo by: Daniel Hughes -

Photo by: Daniel Hughes -

As I watched her satanic thrashing in her Pack-n-Play, her blood-curdling screams could be heard over the roar of the jets landing at SFO.  Soon there was a knock at the door.  As I stood there in my boxers, the manager wanted to know if “everything was under control?”  Translation: “You cannot beat/abuse/torture/maim children in our hotel.”  I assured him that we were just dealing with a stubborn child and that we were doing our best.

In retrospect, what would it have hurt to allow our child to break “the schedule” and nurse?  It’s not like The Wife was sleeping anyway.

Parenting is hard.  It is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.  Those of us who are veterans, or still in the battle joyful journey, understand.  Our glances your way, are not so much about condemnation as they are seeking to understand our own lives.  If you had taken a quick poll of the parents in that Starbucks, most of them would have said this:

“Ignore the boy, keep your eye on him, but ignore him.  Before you know it he’ll be climbing up on your lap and basking in your love.”

  1. Nerdherder permalink
    June 17, 2009 7:05 am

    Wow, excellent tips. As a soon to be first time Dad, I need all the help I can get. I am the oldest of 7 boys, but I’m about to be a father to a little girl, and OMG is it frightening. I too will try to learn from the event you described.


  2. June 17, 2009 10:04 am

    What a thoughtful post – really great information for dads and parents in general. I’m glad to have learned about your site in USA Today and look forward to reading more.

    You might find our blog, Moment-to-Moment Optimism of interest. We’re currently covering the topic of raising optimistic children and optimistic parenting. Check us out!


    Moment-to-Moment Optimism


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