April 1, 2023

What to Do When You See Kids (or Parents) Misbehave

Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

What do you do when you’re out somewhere and you see a child having a temper tantrum or behaving obnoxiously, or you see a parent publicly scolding or even hitting a child? Maybe they are behind you in line at the bank or the grocery store, and the child whines for candy while the parent threatens or stays absorbed in their phone. Maybe the big sister pinches the baby brother, who starts screaming, then the parent pinches the big sister, and she starts screaming too. Or the child kicks you in the shin and the parent smiles sweetly, ignoring the child’s bad behavior.

If you are like me, your first impulse is to turn away, shaking your head and muttering to yourself about what bad parents some people are. Perhaps before you turn away, you will glare at the parent. Perhaps you’ve been glared at yourself. I know I have.

A radical alternative

Offer help to the parent, or warmth and compassion. Reach out. Think about what a hard day they must have had—or what a hard life. Think about the times you have been in the same boat. Or how lucky you are if haven’t been there.

What kind of friendly hand would you have wanted then, instead of a dirty look or the cold shoulder? What if you say “not today” when your disapproval shows up, and instead you lend a hand or a smile to a parent and child in distress?

My role models

I have two role models when it comes to this kind of supportive help, my friends A.J. and Kristina. One time, A.J. was at a beach on vacation and he saw a father trying to force his 4-year-old son to go into the water. The boy didn’t want to, and the father was getting more and more angry. A.J. worried that the situation might escalate into the father hitting or humiliating the son. So he said to the father, very calmly, ”Looks like you really want him to swim, but I don’t think he wants to go in.”

The man turned to him and snarled, ”What did you say?” A.J. said, ”I might be wrong, but I don’t think he wants to go in. My name is A.J.,” he added, and put out his hand. The father shook A.J.’s hand and said, ”You know, I think you’re right.”

He looked at his son, as if for the first time. He started to laugh. He hugged his son, and invited A.J. to sit with them and join their picnic. They became good friends.

Kristina tends to be more forceful than A.J. in her approach to parents who hit or yell at their children, but she keeps a warm smile on her face and remembers to connect with the parent, not just rescue the child. When she saw a father scream at a little girl for dripping ice cream onto her dress, for example, she stepped right over to them and said, ”You can’t talk to her that way.”

“Why the hell not?” he barked back at her.

”Because she’s a precious child. Look at her.” He looked, and maybe even saw the way she was trembling in fear.

He asked her, suspiciously, ”Are you a social worker or something?”

”Nope, just a person who likes kids,” she said. ”I like yours.”

He calmed down—after all, who can argue with someone who tells you they like your child? This father didn’t become Kristina’s new best friend, but he did walk off hand in hand with his daughter.

Lesson learned

After I heard A.J. and Kristina’s stories, I started trying to act differently toward ”horrible” parents and kids. I’m not quite as bold as them. But now, when I see parents and children having an awful time of it, I don’t turn away in disgust. I am more likely to let them know with my expression or words that I’ve been there. I might say, ”Wow, looks like you’ve had a long day.” Or, ”You’ve got your hands full with those kids, can I help you carry your bags?”

Andres Ayrton/Pixabay

Source: Andres Ayrton/Pixabay

Sometimes I just stand nearby, with a warm smile to counteract everyone else’s dirty looks. Usually, if one person is just the tiniest bit kind and understanding, things go much better. The child may even stop a tantrum to look and see who this odd person is, and that helps the situation too. While I am making a connection with the parent, I usually give the child a wink or a smile, to let them know that I know they’ve had a rough day too.

This is so much better for everyone—including me—than punishing parents or kids for their unacceptable behavior. If you really want to help children, and their parents, you need to make a friendly connection. Who knows, you may even make a new friend.

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