Keeping the kids in line during the holidays
The long December holidays can be a trying time for parents – and innocent bystanders.
Naughty kid. (Photo: Getty/Gallo Images)

The long December holidays can be a trying time for parents – and innocent bystanders.

One reader, whose show house had been turned upside down by rambunctious kids, complained to YOU’s sister magazine Huisgenoot on its letters page. “The first thing that hit us like a hurricane is two boys who fly through the house at great speed. They skate on the carpet in the entrance hall, trap our dog in a corner and open each cupboard and drawer.

“When my husband asked the boys’ father to control his kids, he took his family and left in a huff. They told our estate agent that though they’d been interested in buying our home, they wouldn’t be making an offer because of my husband’s ‘attitude’. Am I the only one who thinks they should’ve apologised [for their kids’ behaviour]?” 

The fact is the territory between carefree childhood and public peace is a grey area. In restaurants, friends’ homes and other spaces that parents with young children visit, there’s always at least one adult who believes children should be seen and not heard. But could they have a point? Should parents discipline their children to ensure a more harmonious experience for everyone?

What should a parent or an adult bystander do when the child-created chaos is causing headaches all round?

Each home has its own rules

Experts agree the key is proper preparation and mutual understanding.

The situation with the show house could’ve been mediated by saying something such as, “I feel uncomfortable and I’m concerned about your children’s safety.” Parents are immediately on the defensive when told to “control your children”, says Karen Moross, a counsellor at the Family Life Centre in Parkwood, Johannesburg.

Though you don’t want to offend the child’s parents, their behaviour might be dangerous or risky, so you can’t just ignore it.

As for the two boys’ parents, they could’ve prepared them on the way to the show house by saying something such as, “This might become our new home but it isn’t yet. Respect the people who live there now. Keep your hands to yourself. Would you appreciate it if another boy went through your things?”

The same goes for when you take your kids along for a visit with friends, or when friends with children come over to your place.

“When a child comes into your home they follow your rules. If you have children and someone visits, you can call the kids together and explain your house rules,” says Ken Resnick, a psychologist and family mediator from Johannesburg. In your home other kids have to follow your rules.

But don’t be a tyrant. If someone else’s child for example doesn’t say “thank you” or knocks over the building blocks, refrain from admonishing them. Remember that each parent has different norms of what constitutes acceptable public behaviour.

Public spaces

A child who’s growing up in a calm household will probably not misbehave in public. But a child who’s socially disruptive is probably a problem child at home too, Resnick says.

When a child is in a public space such as a restaurant, they have to follow the rules of that establishment, he adds.

It’s helpful to properly prepare young children for new experiences  they might find confusing or upsetting, Moross says. For example, on the way to the mall, you can say something in the car such as, “This is what’s going to happen. You’ll see shelves full of sweets but you can pick only one. There will be toys but we can’t play with them because they don’t belong to us. We’re not taking them home.”

Set boundaries but also provide choices. In a restaurant, for example, make it clear they can’t just order anything off the menu. Give them a simple choice between two things, such as between fish fingers or a hot dog, pizza or spaghetti. “It’s a more democratic way of parenting. Children will accept the boundaries and enjoy the choices they do have.”

You need to be consistent in various situations and always be on the lookout for “role models”. For example, say to your kids, “See that family? They’re waiting for a table in the restaurant. They’re calmly chatting to one another and no one is yelling.”

There are resources in the form of books and online articles that help prepare kids for things such as a trip or a visit to the dentist.

Address the parent, not the child, writes Peggy Post, co-author of The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children.

Rather than attacking, use “self-asserting me” language, says Xandria Louw, a psychologist from Durbanville, Cape Town. For example, opt for, “I’m struggling to enjoy my meal with my family because the door slams each time the kids run through here,” rather than, “Your children need to behave.” Address the behaviour, not the child.

And if that doesn’t work you have the right to ask the manager of whatever the public space is to intervene, Resnick says.

Read the signs

“When your kids are behaving inappropriately it’s important to establish why. Is it because they lack respect, manners or healthy boundaries? Or are they truly overwhelmed by big emotions, overstimulation, fatigue or hunger?” Louw cautions.

Moross agrees. “Know the signs. My children become irritable when they’re tired, hungry or thirsty, so I always have snacks and drinks at hand. It makes life easier for everyone if their basic needs are met.”

But when your child is simply being rude and disrespectful it’s your responsibility as a parent to take them to one side and make it clear that their behaviour is unacceptable.

Sometimes, such as in a plane or on a bus, you can’t take your child outside. In such a case it’s okay to ask for acceptance and tolerance from bystanders, Moross says. “Children are unpredictable. It’s possible, for example, that a screaming toddler on a plane actually suffers from claustrophobia.”

Then there are temper tantrums – something that’s bound to happen to any parent at some point. Stay calm and firm, avoid aggression and don’t make empty threats, Moross advises.

“We’re the adults. We have a collective responsibility to set an example to kids of how to solve conflict without resorting to screaming and kicking,” she says.

“In an emotional situation, such as when children are misbehaving and rude, our ‘primordial brain’ takes over, switching off our reasonable brain for a moment. That’s when one wants to react without thinking of the consequences. But the adult needs to maintain self-control and behave rationally,” Louw explains.

If you happen to be a bystander in such a situation it’s best to offer help or just ignore the tantrum, rather than judging the parent, which will only aggravate the situation.

When to keep mum?

What about when other parents are ignoring their kids’ misbehaviour? It’s probably best to breathe deeply and just let it go.

Parents guilty of letting their kids misbehave are probably inconsiderate of the disruption it causes others, Louw says. “Sadly, there’s not much to be done about it.”

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