Parenting in Public

Q. I have a very strong-willed, acting out 8-year-old boy. I only recently read and started implementing your 8 principles book and watched your YouTube videos and am trying to implement your “connective parenting” approach which has already been very helpful. But I have struggled with this for so long, and I have a hard time handling friends, family, anyone in public not getting what I am doing. I get lookers, judgments, and even comments of how “bad” he is. They tell me how he needs a smack or more punishment, that he’s disrespectful, etc. I am trying to find confidence in my parenting, but this is a real brick wall. Do you smile politely and say, “My son is having a hard time”? Do you tell them to mind their own business and that you are working on it! Do you just ignore them? It makes me want to wear a t-shirt that states, “I am doing the best I can and so is my son”.

A. I love the tee-shirt idea! You’ll need several so you don’t run out. I would suggest selling them on Etsy. You could make a killing! 90% of American parents would buy them. Congratulations on your new journey to raising a happier, healthier son—and you a happier, healthier mom.

But it can be a long journey. It will take time for your son to trust that you are coming from a truly supportive place and that your new ways of communicating are genuine and will remain consistent before you will see much change from him. Keep in mind that you are learning to behave more responsibly and respectfully while understanding how to give him unconditional acceptance even in the face of out of control behavior. This is about you. This process is about you modeling for him the type of person you want him to become. You are not doing this “being nice” stuff to get him to behave better. That will come only when his emotional state heals from feeling unaccepted, not good enough, powerless or whatever has been provoking his out of control behavior for such a long time.

This is about your perceptual change in order to see that his behavior signals to you that he is having a problem, not being a problem—that when he behaves badly it means he is in pain. Once you can make that mindset change, you will approach him with compassion instead of anger, with responses and problem solving instead of threats and consequences. This all takes time when your automatics are reactive.

In the meantime, you need to take care of yourself and protect yourself from the thoughtless, disrespectful judgments you are experiencing. This requires solid boundaries to be able to let looks and comments bounce off instead of penetrate and take them personally. And I really do mean take care of yourself. Make sure you do something fulfilling and nurturing for yourself every day. We always put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list—if we’re on it at all. This will not help you help your son.

Some additional comments for family and friends might be, “I’m working on a new approach that he isn’t trusting yet. It will take a while. Would you like to hear about it?” That will likely shut them up. With family and good friends, it’s important that you ask for their support instead of their criticism. Try something like, “I know you want the best for Johnny and you’re worried that I am not doing what you think is best. I’m learning a new approach and it’s a work in progress. Changing old habits can take time. I really need your support and understanding. When I feel judged, it hurts and sets me back.” Usually people who love you will respond positively to that.

For strangers, ignore them the best you can. You know your child better than anyone, and anyone who judges you by your son’s surface behavior is not worth your attention. Easier said than done. Your confidence, as you realize, is so essential to being the authority your child needs you to be so you can balance both of your needs.

When parenting in public, most parents have a hard time focusing on what their child needs in that moment and instead try to do what they think this stranger thinks they should do. In that instant, we care more about what someone we may never see again thinks than doing what is right for our child. When those eyes are on you, your stress level jumps, you go into fight or flight, and your thinking, rational brain shuts down. You feel attacked and so you attack. It takes conscious effort to interrupt that instinct.

Prepare a mantra for yourself so when you see those eyes or hear those comments, you can play it in your head. Perhaps something like, They don’t know me or my son, I know what’s best even when I make mistakes, My son is having a hard time and needs me. Or maybe even F— you!

And give yourself a huge break as well as a pat on the back for your determination and perseverance. Expect to make mistakes, expect to lose it and fall back on old habits. Give yourself a lot of time and make sure you have a good friend you trust who is willing to be a good listener for you. It’s important to be able to rant and yell your frustrations out with someone who understands and doesn’t tell you what to do.