Public Response Frazzled

Every parent has been there. You are in a public setting and your child is testing your patience. You repeatedly try to control your child. Nothing is working. Your child is loud, running, touching everything, taking things off shelves, upset. Your frustration grows; your face gets hot. It feels like all eyes are on you and judging your every move.

“You’re doing a good job,” a stranger tells you and smiles.

What? Did you hear that right? You suddenly realize a stranger sees your struggle and how hard you are trying to hold it together. Your face softens, the air lightens and the moment feels more manageable.

This isn’t a made up scenario, but a real life moment for one of us. Ok, total honesty – the wild children are a regular occurrence, but what stood out this day were the kind words that softened this mama. How can five simple words help so much? This stranger’s words were a complete game-changer for my day with my two young sons.

Studies show that when frazzled parents in challenging public settings feel supported instead of judged by fellow citizens, child outcomes in those communities are better. Parenting can be challenging, and simply controlling children can sometimes be impossible. Coming alongside to support parents can drastically improve a tough situation and maybe even change the entire trajectory for that family’s day. Your support and kindness could help a parent refocus and prevent further aggression toward the child.

If you see an adult who is losing patience with a child, or who may be on the verge of mistreating a child in their care – the best ways to help are:

  1. Look for small ways to help.
    • Offer to take the grocery cart back to the corral.
    • Hold the door open.
    • Smile at the family.
  2. Start a conversation with the adult to direct attention away from the child.
  • “You’re doing a great job.”
  • “Children can really wear you out, can’t they? Is there anything I can do to help?”
  • “Your child is very cute. How old is she?”
  1. Talk to the child to divert the child’s attention if misbehaving.
  • “I like your t-shirt.” Did you get that on vacation?”
  • “That’s a great baseball cap. Are you a Yankees fan?”
  1. Look for ways to praise the parent or child.
  • “She has the most beautiful eyes.”
  • “That’s such a cute outfit. Where did you find it?”
  1. Avoid negative comments or looks. Negative reactions are likely to increase a parent’s stress or anger and could make things worse for the child.
  2. Offer assistance if the child is in danger.
  • If the child is left unattended in a grocery cart, stand near the child until the parent returns.

Next week, we plan to discuss what to do if you see public child abuse, which requires a very different response. But as a community, let’s work to help stressed parents and give them room to breathe in public. Let’s create an atmosphere of support not judgment; let’s champion parenting not perfection. Because when stress is lower, child abuse is lower.