I’ve been asked several times (by young moms who have probably figured it all out for themselves by now because it took me so long to get around to an answer) how I get my kids to behave in public, i.e. stay in the cart or walk close to me, keep their hands to themselves, and generally not behave like the people that make Walmart such a miserable place to shop.
First of all, what makes you think my kids behave?
I’m kidding, of course. I don’t just get that question from people on the internet who haven’t actually seen my children. I also get it from people who are watching them in wonder as they line up quietly and do what they’re told, like properly socialized children ought to.
I have to admit, though, that every now and then my two and four year-olds take advantage of my deficiencies in attention span and make a fool of all this “your children are so well-behaved” chatter. Most of the time, they’re great, but if you see us around 3 p.m. (aka naptime), you’re probably not going to have quite as good an impression of us. We’re human, and we’re not perfect. We are, however, pretty good at sitting stillish and being quietish and listening somewhat attentively for age-appropriate lengths of time.
When you go to Walmart and see a child standing up in the cart screaming at the top of his lungs because he doesn’t want to sit down and gnawing on a freshly opened, but not yet paid-for ice cream cone and GIMME THAT TOY NOW, MAMA!?
That ain’t us. So that’s something, at least.
Since I’m no supermom, and my kids are just as sinful as the aforesaid little screaming fella, it stands to reason that what I’ve been doing must be replicable in other families, right? (My mom says that her little girls didn’t need any training because they were just that good, but I suspect she trained us and then forgot how she did it. I have met me, and….well, no. Just no.)
No bribery. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen young moms make (sadly, I guess I don’t count as a young mom anymore) is bribery. Mommy puts a little something in the cart for the child, but “only if you’ll be good.” Depending on what kind of day this is, the child may or may not be “good” enough to get the treat at the end of the shopping trip. If he’s not good enough, of course, he’ll most likely still get the toy, because he’ll scream when you put it down, and screaming children attract attention, so you’ll give him the toy just to make the judgy mom with the happy kids stop waggling her busybody head at you. He has learned something by the end of the very first bribery, but it’s not how to be good. It’s how to blackmail your mother into getting you a toy every time you go out. Now, any time you take that child shopping, you’d better promise him the moon in exchange for his good behavior, or he is going to be very unhappy. And you wouldn’t like him when he’s unhappy. Not only have you set a precedent for giving stuff in exchange for non-stuff, you’d better be bringing out the good stuff, because Mama, I am in one VERY BAD MOOD after missing my nap so you could go shopping.
No threatening. Another big no-no in our family is threatening. “If you don’t behave, I’m going to (insert some harsh and totally unconnected-to-the-offense consequence here) when we get home.” What you’ve just done, well-meaning little mama, is just the flip side of bribery. When you choose threatening or bribing as your child “training” method, the child now has it in his mind that his good behavior is something he does to make you behave. But the truth is, mom, he doesn’t really care how you behave. Not right now, anyway. Right now, all he cares about is whatever wild idea just presented itself in his preschooler brain. (What would happen if I took out the bottom pack of toilet paper from this gigantic pile?) He has the attention span of a gnat, and you’re asking him to take a long view. Furthermore, your attention span is probably only a nan0-second longer than his is, since you hang out with preschoolers all day, so you’re going to forget all about that punishment by the time you get home anyway.
No telling the child what not to do. (Ironic, ain’t it, that I’m telling you what not to do? But you are presumably a grown-up. You can do this.) Don’t stand up in the cart. Don’t run away from Mommy. Don’t touch the merchandise. These are all very good ideas, and I like them. However, the list of activities a child can come up with to inflict misery on the people around him is limited only to the size of his chaotic imagination. You can not possibly preempt every erratic whim with a rule. What I do instead is tell the child what to do, and I keep it very simple. Each child knows only three things:
- Where he is to be positioned in the parade. If a child moves from his place, I move him back. Simple as that.
- That he is to keep himself to himself. Hands, feet, and voices are not welcome in other people’s spaces. Period. It helps if you have a big wagon to put them in.
- He will be getting nothing that is not on my shopping list. I have been known to write “treats” on my shopping list, but they aren’t tied to behavior. You don’t have to be stingy.
The truth is, there is only one way to get your kids to behave in public, and that is to discipline them consistently at home. That was my mother’s secret, and it is mine as well. If my son knows that mommy means it at home, he’s not going to have a doubt in his head that I mean it in public as well. When I see a mom in a power struggle with her child in public, I know I’m just seeing the tip of the iceberg. A child’s home behavior is never (OK, almost never. yeesh.) better than his behavior in public. Neither is his mom’s. A mom who is threatening or bribing in the store is probably also threatening and bribing at home.
I could write a whole book on discipline, I suppose, but smarter people than I have already done so. I haven’t actually read any of those books, but they’re out there. Hunt ‘em down for yourself. For the sake of this post, let’s just say that my kids are “good” because my kids have been expected to be good. I don’t excuse bad behavior just because they’re little, and (unlike many modern parents) I feel quite comfortable with my God-given authority as a parent.
Put simply, discipline is not threatening. Discipline is action. Discipline is not bribery, but showing personal pleasure with a child’s good behavior. What kind of discipline? Well, I’m not going to get into that right now. We don’t use a paddle or rods or whatever the authoritarian crowd are fixated on these days, and I’ve never sent my child outside to cut himself a hickory switch, if you wondered. But my kids know I’m not fooling around, and that is ultimately what your kids need to know, too, young Mom.
(For the record, this post does not purport to speak to the needs of every child or family, especially those with special needs. And if you think I’m judging you…well. I’m not. But if you want to call it that, go right ahead.)