Stop Being Embarrassed by Your Toddler's Bad Behavior

My husband didn’t enjoy his Father’s Day dinner out. Like many other parents, he was far too consumed with our son’s cranky, teething-induced bad behavior to eat, much less appreciate the congrats he received from family on his first year as a dad. I get it: Little kid temper tantrums are annoying. But, now that I’m a mother there’s something I find far worse than a toddler losing it in public: A parent who freaks out over his child’s bad behavior.

“We try to take our kids to family-friendly places,” a friend recently told me, “but I still get embarrassed when they throw a tantrum or act up. I know I shouldn’t, but everyone’s looking at us and I feel like the bad parent, even though I know I’m not.”

No, you’re not. What you are is the guardian of an unpredictable variable with her own emotions and the free will to express them. It’s horrifying, really. Which is why, if you’re a socially responsible person, the mere idea of your kid throwing a temper tantrum in public is enough to make you want to avoid all human contact until he’s school-aged. You know, so he can go to school and someone else can handle the ensuing chaos.

But, you know full well that turning your kid into an agoraphobe is probably the worst thing you can do for her when it comes to teaching behavior control. One of life’s most important lessons to be learned is how not to have a complete emotional meltdown in public. Unfortunately for you, the parent, learning is experiential. You made plenty of mistakes as a kid. Why should you expect your child to be any different? The key isn’t to avoid the meltdown: It’s to learn how to handle it successfully.

And if you’re going to handle it, the first thing you have to do is to stop being embarrassed by your child’s behavior. Embarrassment makes you want to run and hide. Hence most embarrassed parents grab the kid and run for the door the minute bad behavior appears. For example, right as dessert appeared, my son decided to throw a fit. “That’s it!” my beleaguered husband shouted, “pack it up! We’re out!”

“No,” I rose from my seat calmly. “You are enjoying your well-earned cake while we go for a walk.” And so my son and I went out front. I danced him around a bit. We refocused our energy and we had a talk about behavior. Grandpa came out to join us, because he once had toddlers who occasionally lost their tempers. Good behavior was reinforced. And then we all returned to the table.

Then, guess what happened.

My husband ate his cake. He had a few laughs. And life moved on.

We didn’t ignore my son’s bad behavior. We didn’t chuckle at him while he threw his fit, nor did we give in and leave the minute he decided he was done. We simply gave him a safe space to express himself and applied age-appropriate discipline accordingly. It really isn’t that hard. In the end, we received more compliments on his good behavior than remarks on his bad actions.

The other week I was eating lunch in a café on a rare morning off when I heard a three-year-old screaming at the top of her lungs. I followed the trail of glares from angry patrons to a table where a worn out mother sat with her daughter who’d clearly decided that carrots weren’t on her menu that day. After four outbursts the woman gave up, dragged her kid outside and pulled cookies from her bag to bide enough time so she could down her sandwich in peace. In the end, her daughter learned that bad behavior delivers the result she desires. That mother’s embarrassed reaction only served to feed the problem she attempted to solve. But, one day in the near future when her daughter starts kicking and screaming because she doesn’t want to go to school, that mom can at least reassure herself that tens of anonymous restaurant patrons she’ll most likely never see again were able to eat their meals in peace.