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Turn Your Child’s Public Misbehavior Into a Teachable Moment

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
frustrated-looking woman holding a crying toddler

Your toddler’s howling in the supermarket cookie aisle. Your first-grader told Aunt Betty she doesn’t like her birthday present. Your 10-year-old just let rip a swear word you didn’t even know he knew – in public. What now?

Your response is an opportunity to teach important lessons about respect, manners and self-control. Pediatrician Anandhi Gunder, MD, offers these tips on how to handle four common childhood situations.

Your child loses his or her temper or swears.

Try a gentle reminder. Stay calm and give a firm, soft-spoken reminder that tells your child what you expect, without yelling, nagging or shaming him or her in public. Reminders can be just a word or two. If your child is quarreling with a sibling or friend, you might just say, “Discuss.” If he or she is using inappropriate language, your reminder might be, “Talk nicely.”

If your child needs more direction, take him or her aside for a quiet conversation. Be direct and firm, but not angry or demanding – that can backfire by leading a child to feel angry and defiant.

Your toddler or young child is screaming.

Encourage using words. Since something genuinely may be wrong, foster communication by asking your child to calmly tell you what’s the matter, instead of just telling him or her to be quiet. Try to get down to eye level with your child so he or she feels safer and more connected, and knows that you are paying attention. Help younger children find words to express themselves.

Your child makes comments about another person’s appearance or other differences.

Seize a teachable moment. Explain matter-of-factly that everyone is different, yet equal. How much detail you use will depend on your child’s age. Addressing questions and comments openly and without embarrassment on your part sends a powerful message about accepting diversity. So try a gentle challenge – “What made you say that?” – if a child’s comments are negative or judgmental.

Your child isn’t gracious.

Offer a script. Reinforce good manners before a gift-filled celebration. Talk about why politeness and respect are important, even if you don’t love the bunny pajamas from Aunt Betty. Suggest a way to handle it, such as saying “Thank you” and commenting on something he or she does like about the present, such as how warm the pajamas will be on a cold winter’s night.

Remember, children learn from what they see, so modeling appropriate behavior is the best way to get your children to be grateful and courteous to others.

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s has the region’s largest coordinated network of pediatric primary care providers, committed to delivering the very best care to children of all ages, including routine immunizations. Find a UH Rainbow pediatric practice near you.

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