258. Parenting in Public

Parenting in public can be embarrassing. The limits set in private sometimes don’t seem to apply. Parents have told their children how to behave when other people are watching, but children know that their parents probably aren’t going to be as strict in public; maybe they’ll get yelled at or something later, but that’s in the future, and doesn’t seem very real.
I’ve sometimes tried a little experiment, and it’s sometimes worked. When I’ve heard a parent say, in a restaurant or store, “If you don’t stop making noise, someone is going to complain,” I’ve occasionally made the parent honest by asking the child to stop. I played the role of that annoyed stranger. Children have usually reacted by getting quiet. Parents usually know what I’m doing, and appreciate it, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to get children to worry too much about strangers, and even if it is, I’d rather not be one of the strangers they worry about.
Sometimes I invited parents to come to school for a performance of a play. You’d think children would be especially careful about their behavior in that situation; their major authority figures were all right there. Nope.
In that situation, parents thought I was in charge, and I thought parents were. Children didn’t take long to figure out who was in charge; they were.
As soon as I became aware of this dynamic, I told parents I’d be the authority figure, and the problem was solved. I think it would have worked the other way, too. But when there’s a vaccuum, it doesn’t take children long to notice it.
When I write about this sort of issue, I’m afraid I may be portraying children as the enemy. I don’t mean to. Lack of communication is the enemy in this kind of situation; children usually care about pleasing their parents, and parents usually care about their children. I suspect that this kind of problem would not exist in a tribal village. Children would know everyone, and to some degree, would see all adults as people for whom to behave well.
But most of us don’t live in tribal villages, and so all we can do is try to cope with being in public with our children. We can try to be the same limit-setters we are at home, but that’s difficult; the places and people are different. We can try to emulate tribal villages, and take some responsibility for each other’s children. That raises other issues; expectations vary, and besides, some caution about strangers is appropriate and necessary. But I think this is one issue tribal villages probably handle better than we do.

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