Parenting sometimes feels like theater, where everyone is a critic—and my family took center stage this past weekend.
The morning started off so hopeful. I had all three kids and my husband on board to visit the Museum of Modern Art, which is close to where we live in New York. Minutes after our arrival, all three kids started to unravel. “I’m hungry,” said one. “I’m tired,” said another. They took turns complaining, and I took turns gently ignoring them and redirecting the conversation. Their impatience and whining began to escalate.
Be honest: Are you the same mom at home as you are in a museum or the grocery store? How about when your kid is having a meltdown in the candy aisle or next to a $100 million dollar painting?
And then: my 7-year-old had a full-on temper tantrum and parked herself right beside a priceless Jackson Pollack painting.
Let’s pause that scene for a moment. Be honest: Are you the same mom at home as you are in a museum or the grocery store? How about when your kid is having a meltdown in the candy aisle or next to a $100 million dollar painting? I’m not always.
The Pressure to “Over Discipline” When People Are Watching
Parenting when the spotlight is on makes me sweat. I feel everyone’s eyes watching and judging: Am I doing enough, too much, not enough? In those moments when your child is acting out in front of a dozen eyes watching, it’s hard not to think: Does everyone think I’m a bad mom?
I’ve succumbed to the peer pressure of all those watchful, judging eyes and ears. I’ve been the parent on the airplane totally mortified by my children’s behavior. So, in an effort to overcompensate, I‘ve over-disciplined.
“You’ve lost shows for the month,” I once said to my children when they were acting up on a long flight, throwing my voice loud enough so the row in front of us and behind us could hear. As it turns out, my “over-disciplining” was as much a punishment for me as it was for them. A whole month without TV? What was I thinking?
Now back to the priceless painting. Visitors were watching, my other two children were watching, and most troubling, the security guard was watching. I’m pretty sure everyone was looking for a strict, swift end to the nonsense. As I was about to let out my firm voice and play the role they were all waiting to see, I looked into my daughter’s eyes and stopped. She was clearly exhausted and just starting to realize she’d made a really bad choice, but she was in too deep now to surrender. I could parent for the people watching or I could parent for her.
So, I chose her.
“I know exactly how you feel right now, honey,” I whispered to her. “Come here and let me give you a hug.” She paused and then ran into my arms and sobbed. I caught a glimpse of a few disapproving visitors shaking their heads at my tolerance or lack of “appropriate” discipline or whatever they were thinking. Did I do the right thing?
Forget the Judgment and Stick to Your Principles
I called therapist Debbie Pincus, one of our Empowering Parents experts and author of The Calm Parent: AM & PM to ask her advice. “The hardest part of disciplining in public is to not get caught up in other people’s judgments,” she said, “but instead to stay with your principles as a parent.”
It’s hard to think, let alone stick to your principles, when your child is losing it in the candy aisle of the supermarket. Debbie offers some tips to store and recall the next time you need to discipline your child in public:
So, the next time your child throws a fit in the supermarket, take comfort remembering that it’s in these moments that your child learns about life’s consequences. “It is our job as parents not to control our children, but rather to develop the kind of strong relationship that will help them grow to be their own person,” says Debbie. I think one of the hardest parts of parenting is allowing your child to live with the choices he or she makes, even if they embarrass you a little in the process.
Jennifer is freelance writer for The Wall Street Journal and several national magazines. Earlier in her career, she was a journalist for “60 Minutes.” She lives in New York with her husband and their three children, ages 9, 7 and 4. You can read her other work at www.JenniferBWallace.com.