Parenting in public: How to keep young kids on their best behavior

Sarah L. Morford/Special to the Town Crier
Taking youngsters to public places, like a grocery store, can be a challenge for parents.

It starts early. There is a point at which coming home from the hospital with a newborn with little more than a half-pack of diapers, a scheduled appointment with the pediatrician and a cotton striped hat feels like sheer madness.

But soon, each of us will settle into a routine with our little one and over time that routine at home feels safe and predictable.

Next comes the more daunting challenge: leaving the house with the child. Leaving the house comes with parallel challenges. First, one must face the tactical side - timing, coordination, gear and travel itself. These will embroil you initially but will soon feel banal compared to what some might see as the monumental challenge of parenting in public.

With our parenting on full display in public, one sometimes feels like the Emperor with No Clothes. The highest highs and lowest lows can come from having the approval of strangers and, conversely, their judgmental, unwelcomed criticism and side-eye. I’ve put together some tried-and-true strategies to arm you for your next outing.

When your little one is not yet mobile, leave the house as much as you can. We made a sport of trying new restaurants when our daughter was young. Wearing her in a wrap so that she would sleep soundly through dinner, we could still sit in a two-top and keep a low profile. Alternately, a car seat often fits great in a booth. Do opt for a restaurant where the din and ambience can serve as the perfect white noise to keep a sleeping child asleep and avoid intimate, small, quiet places. Opt to be outside during these early months when babywearing hikes, walks and festivals are easier. These nonmobile months also can be the perfect time to plan travel abroad or across the country.

Once your little one is mobile and eating solids, you’ll venture to a different set of places. When eating out, I recommend going at off-peak times to minimize wait times with wiggly little ones. Review the menu in advance and order something the moment you sit down so that some food comes quickly. Sweet potato fries are soft, healthy-ish and ubiquitous these days. Bringing a few items can make eating out easier - keep a lightweight fasten-on chair like the Inglesina Fast Table chair in your car in a canvas bag and buy sticky plastic one-time use placemats. With sticky placemats, you’ll avoid your child throwing plates, cups and silverware (this is the age when dropping things is hilarious) and you’ll ensure a clean eating surface. With those two items, you can set up shop anywhere and the chair will keep the baby at appropriate table height (whereas restaurant high chairs can be quite large and rarely keep baby contained).

When your kids reach age 2, it helps to keep a lightweight bag in your car filled with your "on-the-go activities" - small things, such as games or toys that are new and interesting and can help pass the time or temper a tantrum. Thrift stores, the Dollar Store and Target’s "dollar section" are great places to pick up things for your table bag. Our bag always included Wiki Stix, lift-the-flap books like "Dear Zoo" and "10 Little Tadpoles," stickers, "Water Wow" books and Go Fish for older kids.

The dedicated activities bag is key because its contents are novel and not messy. Bring your own into restaurants especially, because crayons mostly get eaten or dropped. Resist the urge for screen time but keep short attention spans and wiggly kids in mind when you plan where to eat. We love places with large patios, fish tanks and booths where kids can bounce or explore or walk around during meals with a parent.

Even with the best of intentions, the activity bag and all the snacks, sometimes outings still don’t go as planned. Take heart: You’ll rarely find a parent whose cheeks haven’t burned with the embarrassment and shame of a child who is melting down in public, causing a scene and making it impossible to do much else but endure.

As a parent, it helps to expect the unexpected. Humor can go a long way toward diffusing a situation. If you’re in the middle of something with your child, consider putting on blinders. Keep the focus on your child, stick with him or her and in the situation. People won’t change, but at the end of the day you can know that you took the high road, stuck with your child during a tough time and survived to leave the house again.

Remember that mutual respect goes a long way. Parents: Talking to and checking in with people when your kids are exploring out in public goes a long way; a simple, "Is he OK near you?" can open up an easy dialogue. Similarly, be sure to teach your children good dog etiquette: Children should always ask if it’s OK to say hello to a dog, never approach a canine from behind and offer a hand first for a sniff.

Finally, for those who have forgotten what it’s like to raise tiny humans: Tell a mom she is doing a good job, and you could make her week. Pick up a grocery bag and offer to help instead of rushing around her. Make a kid smile across a restaurant, and you can be the hero of dinner. Kindness multiplies. They say it takes a village - go out and explore yours with your kids and don’t let anything hold you back.

Sarah Morford is a former Mountain View resident. To read more of her parenting experiences and advice, visit her blog at ▲

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