Kids will be Kids (or Teaching Kids How to Behave in Public)

Our kids rarely step inside crying rooms – mostly because the little chapel we go to on Sundays doesn’t have one. Everyone there knows our kids and I’m sure would tolerate practically any mischief on their part, but this only impels us even more to help our kids stay quiet (for the most part, anyway).

It seems almost an incredible feat these days, having kids behave well in public. Crying rooms-turned-playrooms abound in churches, and dining places, even (international) airlines, offer all sorts of distractions from coloring sheets to video screens – anything to keep kids from running amok.

I think back on our childhood and am amazed at how our parents were able to keep us in line without all these. Just like the chapel we go to, none of the churches back home had crying rooms. Granted, most buildings back then had open-air architecture or at least had big open windows all around, allowing for better noise dispersion than our usually enclosed buildings here. And yet – despite the stifling heat on most days – rowdy kids still seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.

So how DID they do it?

Perhaps one factor was the sheer number of people accompanying kids in those days. Since many had large families or lived close to extended family, often one or two church pews (or dining tables) would be filled by a single family alone. This not only meant more watchful eyes but also more helping hands and arms to carry fussy babies and keep little ones in line.

Being musically-inclined people, there were naturally plenty of songs at Mass and other events – usually either emotion-laden and easily sung by even the littlest ones, or joyful and catchy. This likely helped a lot in keeping the children’s attention or in re-focusing it back to the activity at hand.

But since neither of these probably apply to most of us here and now, I’ve included below some of the more practical ways our parents’ generation helped us as kids behave in public, as well as some gleaned from our own family’s experience.

And though some may not agree with all of these methods – after all, every child and every family is different – hopefully, even a few will be helpful!

1) Set the stage.

A 2-yr old genuflecting (kneeling) and crossing himself in church
A 2-yr old genuflecting (kneeling) and crossing himself in church

Respecting our kids’ basic needs is already half the battle won. A well-rested and well-fed child is more likely to stay calm and engage in or at least be “present” for the public event or activity at hand. (The same works for us adults too!)

Our all-time sleep “bible” for kids – Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child – has been (and still is) a great guide in helping our kids stay well-rested. Working around naps and ensuring adequate sleep especially before public events keeps kids (and mom) calm and happy.

It’s best to begin this calmness even at home, long before the event, by allowing more time for preparation. (Being Filipino, this poses quite a challenge!) A rushed child absorbs stress like a sponge and is more likely to respond by acting up.

Keep in mind your child’s limits as well, and anticipate when he will begin to get tired or hungry again. One of my least favorite activities is going to photo studios with kids in tow – taking photos and choosing the best ones afterwards seem to take forever. We’ve quelled many a potential mutiny just by timing the end (and not the middle) of our sessions to coincide with snack time – at the frozen yogurt place next door, of course. 😉

2) Dress for the occasion.

Perhaps the best “trick” our parents used to help us behave at Mass wasn’t even a trick but a given for all of us – we dressed up. The simple act of dressing up in our Sunday best instilled in our young minds the fact that this was not a routine event but something important that deserved special attire – and special etiquette.

The same was true for parties, recitals, and other such events. Dressed in special attire, we knew – long before we got there – that we were going to an important event that merited especially good behavior.

3) Familiarize.

Kids are more likely to act up when overwhelmed by unfamiliar activities, surroundings, and people. Before arriving, explain to them what the activity is, who will be there, what they will be doing, what they will see or hear – essentially what to expect.

If you plan to attend a recital, perhaps listen to a few similar tunes ahead of time. We recently attended our daughter’s music recital – a 2-hr long event that most parents would probably dread bringing little boys to. Ours behave surprisingly well at these recitals, probably because the tunes they hear are the same ones played over and over at home by their sister – music they already know, enjoy, and even hum to themselves.

If you have photos or videos of the venue or people involved, looking over these ahead of time may help. When we fly halfway around the world with toddlers, we let them watch this video: The I’m A Good Little Traveler! DVD Toolkit Series: Shae by Air – a bit outdated (water bottles in carry ons!) but surprisingly effective. Ours kids remembered every detail and knew to expect check-in lines, security, etc., even remembering not to kick the seat in front.

4) Do the “drill” – before and after.

We knew our parents expected us to be on our best behavior because they told us – in no uncertain terms. And so we do the same with our own kids, reminding them of the “rules” as we drive to a public event or gathering.

As early as 3 years of age, or even earlier, our kids could recite from memory all the “rules” on the way to church on Sundays: “No pushing, no pulling, no kicking, no talking, no crying, don’t kick the pew, don’t bang the kneeler, etc etc.” Kids have an amazing memory!

Do they always follow them? No. But they know we expect it of them and the rewards or consequences that follow if they do or don’t.

This also relieves us of any need to keep repeating the rules over and over again in public. Sometimes all we need do is shake our head and the misbehavior stops – sometimes. 😉

But just as important as drilling in the rules is giving kids feedback. Doing this right after the event seems to have the most impact – and being in the car  usually gives us a captive audience.

Even little ones can easily answer “So, how do you think you did?” when given choices like “good, really good/great, just okay, bad, really bad/ horrible/ terrible”. They may then need help in explaining why – a crucial part of the after-the-fact drill.

These are just two simple exercises which, if done consistently, eventually (hopefully!) lead to more self-awareness and better choices – and not just for the early years, but hopefully for life.

5) Bribe shamelessly.

Hand in hand with the “drill” of rules on the way to the event is the reminder of the rewards that lie in store for those who behave well. A special dessert perhaps, or a short video or activity that has been awaited all week – any privilege that would be painful to give up.

If a disapproving look or shake of the head isn’t enough to stop misbehavior in public, oftentimes a quick reminder of the bribe (“No treat?”) stops it in its tracks posthaste.

Barquillos, wafer rolls. (Courtesy of

One of our traditions growing up was enjoying some “barquillos after Sunday Mass, sold by vendors right outside the church. At least, I thought it was just a tradition, until I found out later on that it was in fact a bribe for good behavior. It must have worked well, since we have many happy memories of munching on those yummy barquillos! 😉

Some may object to this blatant bribery. However, we’ve found that as our children mature, this becomes less and less necessary, eventually replaced by frank discussions on the why’s or why-not’s of behavior – at least for girls. It may take longer to sink in for boys, as we are finding out with ours!

Perhaps the hardest part of disciplining kids is meting out consequences and withholding rewards. But in time, consistency in this eventually leads to less consequences and more rewards in the long run. Children learn fast – even faster when rewards are involved.

6) “Ignore” them.

Once inside the church, our parents stopped paying attention to us – except when we misbehaved, that is. Every time I looked at them, they were either looking straight ahead, listening intently, or praying equally intently. I am sure though – as we do now with our kids – that they watched us like hawks from the corners of their eyes.

Children learn by mimicking. If they see you quietly paying attention to the activity up front, there’s a higher chance they will do the same. It might even pique their curiosity and draw their attention there, to try to figure out what Mom and Dad find so interesting.

The reverse can be true as well – if all you do at an event is pay attention to your children or chat with them as usual, they will quickly learn that there is nothing more important at that event than them. They will likely expect you to pay attention to them the entire time and be more apt to object if you don’t.

7) No crying rooms!

I’ve rarely been to a crying room that was just that – a crying room. More often than not, it is transformed into a playroom with all the toy cars, dolls and accessories, and the accompanying chatter and laughter of the toys’ owners.

And so we sit at regular pews as much as possible and hope for the best. We’ve found through the years though, that there are quite a few benefits to starting this early.

For one, our kids learn early on how to behave while seated at a regular pew. Trying to sit at a regular pew for the first time during a wedding or baptism is optimistic at best, possibly even disastrous! And the same is true for any event requiring sitting with the “regular crowd”.

Counterintuitively, we also discovered – on arriving to Mass so late one time that there were no other seats left (shame!) – that our children actually behaved even better when sitting in the front pew. Since front pews provide the best view with no grown-ups blocking the way, kids can see and hear what’s going on and end up more interested and engaged.

8) Distract discreetly.

Precisely because we don’t usually sit in the crying room, we’ve had to rely on more quiet distractions for our kids. Snacks are almost inevitable for young ones under 2, but potentially messy and distracting, so we try to wean them off as early as possible, ensuring adequate meals beforehand.

Books provide a nice quiet activity (until they start naming things aloud, that is!), provided you use books reserved for special events, or rotate books every now and then. I’ve found you don’t even need to “read” books to really little ones – simply opening flaps or pointing to things silently on each page was interesting enough. At Mass, helping little ones find pictures in this handy board book corresponding to each part of the Mass is a helpful distraction  – We Go to Mass (St. Joseph Board Books).

The simplest things sometimes work best. At the moment, what keeps our little one happily distracted are a small pad and pencil (not a good idea for kids prone to writing on other things or people!), and a little round black folding brush and mirror that I got from the dollar store that looks like this – Travel Folding Hair Brush Mirror Pocket Purse Car Camping Compact 2.5″ Gift 1Pc. Buttoning, unbuttoning, zipping and unzipping a purse repeatedly works well as well. Then there is of course his lovey – unobtrusive and soft, it makes no noise and is washable too. 😉

Calm kids really don’t need much fancy distractions. But if all else fails, carrying them is always a safe bet.

9) Sign and whisper.

Just as our parents did, we try not to speak to our kids in church. “Ignoring” them aids in this endeavor, since even one word can be a slippery slope, often leading to a lengthy back-and-forth discussion for kids.

If we really must communicate, we try to do so with simple gestures (no, yes, tissue, etc), or using at most a few whispered words. Teaching little kids early on how to whisper is essential – especially since their volume control seems to be universally defective from birth!

During any “communication”, a finger to the lips reminds the child of the need for silence. And once everything is settled – as quickly as possible – it’s back to “ignoring” them again, all the while watching them from the corners of our eyes.

10) Practice, practice, practice.

As with nursery rhymes and songs, kids learn proper behavior by repetition. If behavior at Sunday Mass is a problem, going to Mass once in a while isn’t going to solve it. Try visiting the church at other times during the week – for weekday Mass or even a quick peek inside – reviewing the rules and practicing proper behavior all the while. These short visits may seem to be of  little consequence, yet each adds up in the child’s memory bank.

And once we lay down the rules, consequences and rewards, we’re in it for the long haul, all or none. We either mean what we say, every time, or the kids learn otherwise – real fast.

We’ve had to leave our seats many times to calm down little ones or remind them of rules and consequences out of everyone else’s earshot – over and over again. It may take weeks, months, even years (!), but with persistence and time, it will eventually sink in.

And it’s well worth it. We’ve found that the more we follow through now, the less we will need to later on. This doesn’t mean that there will never be misbehavior in public again – just that there is a much less chance of this occurring.

It’s true: Discipline more now and you will discipline less later.

For now, we are just grateful that recitals are over and summer is nearly here. The kids can finally stay outdoors as much as possible and run free – as noisy and as boisterous as they are meant to be.

See you (in public)! 😉



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