Recently, a father in Hawaii was in the news for making his 8-year-old son walk home after an argument in the car. Judge Kathleen Watanabe gave him one year’s probation and a $200 fine for his “old school” form of discipline that she said was no longer appropriate.
In fact, parents we communicate with through 1-on-1 Coaching are often worried about this issue. They ask, “When my child is acting out, or their behavior is escalating in the car, is it okay to make him or her get out of the car and walk home?” First, I want to be clear that there is no one response that answers every situation. It’s important to take certain details of your specific situation into consideration when implementing any parenting tool. Factors such as the age and gender of your child, how far from your destination you may be if you’re away from home, and the area in which you’re located all play a big part in your decision.
No one would ever suggest that it’s okay to leave a young child or have him or her walk home on his or her own, regardless of where you are or how close to your destination you may be. In these situations, “stopping the show” (of the screaming, yelling or acting-out behavior) might mean walking a few steps away, removing your child to another room to calm down (if you are at a friend’s or relative’s home), or pulling the car over (and getting out and standing next to the car, if that helps keep you calm) until the behavior has ceased. As far as what defines a “young child,” that in itself has factors of its own to take into consideration. For children under the age of five, it may be beneficial to take a few steps away when your child is acting out, or perhaps pick her up or take her hand to leave the location. Children between the ages of 5 -10 might require a little time and space to calm down before being escorted out of the store.
I also want to stress that we all have to make judgment calls in challenging situations. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and keep safety in mind at all times. You want to avoid putting you or your child in any situation that could cause either of you harm. So, if your child is acting out while you’re driving on a busy highway, you may not be able to pull over until you’re able to get off that road. If your teen daughter is being rude and disrespectful while shopping at the mall, in the moment, you may just have to disengage by not responding. Leaving the mall and having her walk home may not be a safe option. If it’s uncomfortable for you to be in the car with her when she’s raging at you, keep in mind that you can always pull over, get out of the car and stand nearby, waiting for her to calm down before driving again. (Don’t give her tantrum attention. James Lehman suggests bringing a magazine or book with you to read, or you could also play a game on your phone until she pulls it together.) Remember, you can hold her accountable for her behavior after you get home.
It’s understandable you want to teach your child a lesson and let him or her know this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. However, making your child walk home may not teach them that lesson. Instead, it will probably invite resentment and more power struggles down the road.
Two Steps to Take:
Step one: Pre-planning what you’ll do
There are two important steps that many parents sometimes forget to take when implementing this type of response. First, pre-planning is always helpful. When we respond in the moment, the response can often be less than effective. Have a plan in place before you leave home as to how you will respond if your child acts up while you are out. Discuss this plan with your child so he knows what you will do if he decides to act out or throw a tantrum. Do this regardless of how old your child may be. For younger kids, you can simply say something like, “When we go to Aunt Sally’s house, I expect you to play nicely with your cousins and not call anyone names. If you do call anyone names, we will come home.” For older kids, this might go something like, “We are going to the mall to pick out some clothes for school. I expect you to talk to me respectfully and not argue about what we are and are not going to buy. If you do talk to me disrespectfully, we will leave the mall and come home.” If your daughter becomes surly and disrespectful, you can let her know the shopping trip is over and it’s time to go home. If she refuses and tells you she’s not leaving, you can let her know there will be consequence if she chooses not to leave. Then, walk a small distance away to allow both of you some space to calm down.
Step two: The Follow-up Conversation
The second step parents frequently leave out is the follow-up conversation that allows your child to problem solve ways they can handle situations differently in the future. Again, this is something you can do with children of all ages; it will just look different for each developmental stage. For children 3-4 years of age, it will be more about reviewing the expectations and making suggestions for ways they can make better choices next time. So, during a calm time, you might say something like “I know you were upset you couldn’t get the toy. It’s not okay to yell and scream when you’re upset. Next time, maybe you could take a few deep breaths when you start to get upset.” For an older child, it can be beneficial to let her think about better ways of coping with frustration and disappointment. We have several articles on Empowering Parents that give tips for problem solving with your child. One that may be useful is The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”.
The same goes for whether or not you should have your child walk to or from school if he isn’t getting ready on time or is being rude when you pick him up. If you only live a short distance and there are no major thoroughfares or busy intersections along the route, then having an older child walk might be an option if it’s safe and legal to do so. There are other alternatives, however, such as charging your child a fare if he misses the bus and you have to drive him. If the issue is arguing and disrespect while you’re driving, disengaging and stopping the show may be a better option than putting your child out of the car and having him walk the rest of the way.
Something to keep in mind is, even though it may feel like you have to respond in the moment, you don’t have to. There is always going to be time later to hold your child accountable for the choices he or she is making now.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.