Parenting in Public: Toddler Time!
[Reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood and Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
You’re sitting in a restaurant waiting the prerequisite ten to fifteen minutes for your food to be served, chatting quietly with your spouse and two-year-old, when it happens, that dreaded moment that every parent fears…the sudden switch from table companion to meltdown mayhem when life as you and every patron, staff member, and passerby know it is turned inside out and upside down.
That moment is known as ‘Toddler Time’ which is aptly named because it is, in fact, all about time from the perspective of a toddler. That insignificant ten to fifteen minute waiting period for food to arrive is actually eons in toddler time, eons of hunger, eons of boredom, eons of stillness, eons of being expected to act like the adult that they are years and years (eons!) away from becoming. But you really don’t want to be housebound for all of those eons, right? And yet more and more public places are becoming child un-friendly with snarky signs saying they’ll give your child an espresso and a pony if you don’t control them, or charge you extra if you dare to enter their establishment and support their business with your hard-earned money, or even flat out ban you altogether if you bring ‘the beast’ out in public with you!
And what about those hazy, lazy summer days at the park with the laughter of children floating in the air, mommies wearing sleeping babies in their carriers while chatting and keeping eagle eyes on their precious little monkeys dangling from brightly colored jungle-gyms, when the dreaded moment suddenly hits, and all goes quiet as every eye turns toward the poor soul who called out those awful, awful words, “It’s time to go!” The words echo against the lowering sky, which has conveniently decided to threaten rain just to add to the sheer madness of the moment, and then the shrieking begins. In toddler time, an hour at the park is gone in the blink of an eye, and fun things like being strapped into car seats and baths and naps awaiting at home just add insult to injury.
So what’s a parent to do?
Here are a few preemptive tools for your gentle parenting toolbox:
- Gather a few special ‘quiet’ toys and keep them in a Quiet Bag in the car. To keep their novelty value, only get them out when you go into a store or restaurant and let your little one play with one toy at a time until it’s time to go, saving one last special toy for the car ride home. Some ideas for stocking your Quiet Bag are
- felt busy books
- picture books
- white-erase boards
- coloring books
- small, unlined notebooks
- crayons or washable markers
- mini stuffed animals
- small play figures such as superheroes, dollhouse dolls, cars, trucks, etc.
- chunky, age-appropriate puzzles
- Making a habit out of wearing your little one or letting them ride in a cart or stroller while in stores and keeping them happily occupied while secured in a highchair or on your lap when in restaurants are proactive steps that will help prevent issues with running around and getting into things.
- Keeping your little person occupied is always a good place to start, but if yelling or screaming still become an issue, try responding with a whispered question or two. It’s pretty much irresistible for little ones to quiet down to hear what you’re saying, and even better if what you’re saying is super silly…”I think my nose went outside for a walk.” (with a conspiratorial ‘shared secret’ look) “Could you check for me to see if it’s back yet?” (crossing your eyes to see for yourself)
- With the dreaded leaving-the-park issue, try bringing snacks your small one loves, and instead of saying “Time to go!” try saying “Snack time!” and describe the yumminess waiting for them, all the while gently guiding them to the car. Or brainstorm with your little one ahead of time to come up with a fun activity to do after the park like playing a favorite game together or stopping by the library to pick up a new book to read together. The idea is to involve your toddler in the planning so they feel like they have some control over their lives and also to have something fun to look forward to that will help them through transitions (which are always hard for little ones).
- Don’t forget to pack your ‘funnybone’ for a back-up plan! Humor is a powerful parenting tool, and car seats presented as rocket ships to the moon, shared naptimes (parents can always use the extra sleep!) on marshmallow planets, highchair-bound movie directors with mommy and daddy as the actors, and shopping carts cars that continually stall and need to be fixed by their little riders are all inventive ways of keeping little people too busy and happy to meltdown. (Not to mention that these are great ways to reconnect with your little one and remember just how adorable they really are!)
Actively work at avoiding confrontations and meltdowns by giving choices, staying engaged, listening to your child, and paying attention to triggers such as hunger, tiredness, sickness, etc. When our parenting goals shift from meeting needs and guiding actions to controlling our children, they invariably rebel and the battle is on, not a happy circumstance at any time, but especially difficult to handle in public! (And, in the long run, that makes for an ‘us against them’ relationship that sets the stage for an unhappy home, particularly when the teen years arrive.)
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.