Recently, one of our readers wrote in with the following question:
How do you discipline your school aged child in public with everyone watching, especially in places like church, where you cannot let them scream. Threats don’t really work, so what do others do? If I try to remove my child, she becomes hysterical. Not really appropriate for church. Thanks for any help or suggestions.
Sarahlynne’s Answer: Situations where you can’t discipline your child during the event are very difficult. The key is to set up a pre-emptive system that puts the child in control. Often, kids act out in these situations because they feel out of control and want to take some of it back. The only way they believe they can do that is to scream, misbehave, or break rules. So, before the situation begins, give her three or four major rules that you know she can follow. Give her concrete behaviors for any abstract concepts. For example, if the rule is “be respectful,” make sure your child knows that concept means she must follow directions, use inside voices, and use manners.
Show her three colored index cards. Explain that if she breaks one rule, you will show her the “green” card. That is her warning. If she breaks another rule, you will show her the “yellow” card. That means she has a time-out when she gets home, (or another pre-determined consequence.) If she breaks the rules a third time, you will show her the “red” card. That means she will have a more serious consequence later, that is also pre-determined. Be careful to not put any of these responsibilities on you. Tell her she is in control. If she breaks rules during the event and you need to show her a card, she may be very upset afterward. Reiterate to her that she made a choice and this is the consequence. Take yourself out of the equation and give her the control. Of course, you may also want to give her an incentive. So if she stays on a green card for the entire event, she has a special privilege afterwards, something that, like the consequence, is pre-determined, and therefore, in her control.
Dawn’s Answer: When crying-it-out (or screaming-it-out as is the case with C) is not an option, I would use incentives to instill proper public behavior. Talk to your child beforehand and explain to him/her that if he/she behaves well while doing X activity, he/she will be rewarded for that good behavior. Stickers, a favorite treat, a new book or a favorite tv program are all great incentives for kids. And eventually, the incentives can be removed when once your child has a better understanding of good versus bad public behavior. Your child should know that bad behavior will not only not be rewarded; there will also be consequences to that bad behavior. A timeout when you get home, skipping a favorite activity like the park or a tv show, or taking away a favorite toy for a specified amount of time are acceptable consequences for bad behavior in public. The key to this approach, I think, is talking to your child before and after the experience – whether good or bad – so he/she has a clear understanding of why certain behaviors are good or bad in public.
Evanthia’s Answer: What a tricky question! In a situation where I can’t discipline my daughter with a punishment, as I normally would, I have to fall back on using an incentive to try to eliminate the bad behavior before it starts. In the case of church, it’s so tough, because children are expected to sit quietly like the adults, which is really an unreasonable expectation, but that’s not a good reason to avoid church! Instead, I think we need to hold our children to a high standard and continue to expose them to environments that require appropriate behavior.
Before you even get to church, be sure to spend a few minutes discussing what is expected: sitting on the pew, listening, not talking, etc. Then, when you arrive at church, point out that all the other people there are following the “rules,” because that’s what’s expected in this environment. Finally, as an incentive, I’ve noticed that a lot of families with young children will go out for brunch after church if everyone is on good behavior. This kind of special treat for unusually good behavior seems like an appropriate incentive to me, and a way for the family to discuss church and have some quality time, too! (Of course, making an awesome pancake breakfast at home could be equally appealing, depending on your family’s tastes and budget.)
What’s your best trick for disciplining your child in public? Have any of these strategies worked for you?
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