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“You haven’t been ‘good’ today,” a mother announced. She and her child had been exploring the new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. We can imagine the mom’s frustration—trying to keep up with her child in the aquarium crowds or grabbing butterflies in the rainforest. I doubted that hearing that he was doing poorly would transform his behavior. Getting children to listen in exciting new places can be tricky. However, we can prepare children for new situations and stop and clearly remind them that they need more self-control. However, we can’t motivate them by saying they’re doing poorly.
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Many children have difficulty in public places. It’s easy to react by telling ourselves “I’m never taking her into a crowded grocery store again” and then starting to leave our children home when
we shop or go out to eat. Who wants to wrestle a writhing child out of the toy store? It’s easier to go buy that birthday present for a classmate alone. However, keeping children out of situations that challenge their self-control reduces their opportunities to practice public social skills.
It helps to understand some of the reasons children act out at the very times when we need them to be on their “best behavior.” Going into public requires an ability to deal with lots of stimuli and a tolerance for discomfort. Where will we find a bathroom? How will we eat when we’re hungry?
The key to having peaceful ventures into the world lies in preparation. We need to talk with children ahead of time about where we are going, who will be there, and what our expectations are–all in nurturing and very specific ways. “At this party, we have to wait until dinner is served, so we’ll have snack ahead of time.” “We can’t make noise during the wedding, but we’ll run around afterward.” Adults need to address children’s needs ahead of time (“In case of you feel tired, we’ll find a place for you to rest”).
Of course, communicating ahead only works if we have a child’s complete attention. Showing children what’s involved in giving attention (facing us with shoulders turned toward us, looking directly at us) is also preparation for teaching them how to meet new people.
Agreeing on guidelines sets up communication for the day, making it easy to pause and remind a child of our shared understanding. Our goal is to gradually help children feel confident and comfortable wherever they go. As the old saying about any skill reminds us, “Practice makes perfect.”
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.