Managing Children’s Behavior in Public: 5 Strategies that work!

1. Teaching is preventing:

As parents, we are really good at responding to behavior problems with consequences, but preventing problems and teaching skills is more effective in the long-term. As adults we often forget that our children have to be taught, and yes, re-taught how to manage their behavior. So, before heading into Wal-Mart, Chili's, or Chuckie Cheese, take a minute to discuss good choices and bad choice while in the store/restaurant. Be specific and relay with confidence, that you expect them to stay next to your cart, to use their inside voices and (insert: whatever your child's favorite acting out behavior seems to be). You can even make a game of it by quizzing them, saying such things as: Who can tell me what good store behavior looks like? Who can tell me what bad store behavior looks like? In other words, teach them and prep them for success in the store, every-time, and if you're lucky, that's all the help they'll need.


2. Have a plan:

Don't be caught off guard and let a "quick trip " to the grocery store ruin your day. Having a plan will ensure your success. Establish a routine system for rewarding behavior in public. For example: I often have families that I work with buy some play-money, raffle tickets, or get a handful of pennies to take with them in the store. The children then earn a ticket (or penny) each time the parent observes good store behaviors. If rewarded liberally, children love it and they spend the whole trip to the store/restaurant trying to earn money (fake money of course) by being good, and you escape without a crisis. There are lots of variations on this system that work great. The major point is that you're rewarding the good behavior rather than spending the entire trip nagging them for bad behavior. They get lots of praise and learn how to act, while you keep your sanity!


3. Recognize the reality of the situation:

Your children aren't actually demon possessed when they enter Wal-Mart. It is a scientific fact that children's brains are not fully mature, including their frontal lobes, the part of the brain that helps control impulses and manage emotion. So, when they enter Wal-Mart they are bombarded with lights, colors, people, loud noises and rows upon rows of fun and curious things to touch. Of course they have more trouble managing their behavior than at home. It really is the worst place for children. Understanding this gives you more patience and more realistic expectations for your children, and the more patient you are the better able you are to handle their behaviors. So, stay calm, recognize that they are not manipulative and trying to embarrass you, they are just excited and can't contain it. If going to Wal-Mart is repeatedly traumatic, then maybe they're just not ready yet. Find a smaller store or leave them at home.


4. Toys are our friends:

Now this may seem surprising, but I have personally used electronics, like my iPhone, as a life-preserver; it's saved many of nice meals and shopping trips for my family, and I know I'm not alone. I'm not saying that we should let these things raise our children or that electronics should take the place of good teaching or positive reinforcement, but they can bail you out of a sticky parenting situation from time to time. If you're not a fan...well, it's not just electronics, other toys can also help, like books, coloring books, action figures and countless other toys. They are great prevention strategies that every prepared and prevention-focused parent could utilize. Some might argue that this strategy doesn't teach children to wait patiently without having something to occupy them. I say parents who show up with a bag full of toys and other objects to occupy their children in restaurants and waiting rooms around the state are the parents who are keeping their sanity and their kids probably act great! Prepare a bag of fun toys, leave them in the car, and reap the benefits. Prevention is key!


5. Have no fear:

Kids learn ways to get what they want (don't we all, really) and some learn that their parents get immobilized in public when they act up, which usually results in their having a big fit until mom or dad throws their hands in the air and gives in, in-order to prevent utter public humiliation. Unfortunately, when that happens the child is rewarded for having a fit in public, and it is more likely to happen again. Kids need to know that the rules apply in public, don't be afraid to enforce consequence in public. Every one of those seemingly judgmental on-lookers have either been in your place or don't have kids. You have to teach your children how to act in public. So, what do I mean exactly? Well, if the above strategies fail, don't be afraid to take your child to the car or the bathroom for a brief time-out session, or a chance to get it together. Don't be afraid to leave an entire basket of groceries in the store and go home. Whatever you do, do not give in to the fit and buy the (insert),that your child is screaming or begging for. Your children need to see that you can stay calm in the store, you will not give in, and you are not afraid to apply consequences in Wal-Mart or anywhere else.

Now, I must say that some children, such as those with autism, ADHD, or other special needs, may require more teaching, more frequent rewards and still may struggle to manage their behavior public. It's part of their condition. But for the vast majority of children, if you follow these guidelines, have a prevention plan, teach appropriate behavior repeatedly, reward that behavior repeatedly, and demonstrate that you are not rattled by their misbehavior in the store, then they will get better. Make a plan, stick to it, and happy shopping!


Dr. Adam Benton
Co-Founder of Arkansas Families First, LLC