When My Children Act Out in Public

My two boys live life at full speed, full volume, and with their full bodies. Sometimes when we are out in public, I worry about what they might do. When my oldest was 2, I took him to story time at the library. All the little girls sat nicely on their mommy’s laps listening to the librarian read. Then there was my son. He ran circles around the group. When he finished making everyone dizzy, he tried to figure out how the blinds worked on the windows. From then on, we did story time at home.

Another time, I let my youngest push the grocery cart at the store. While I searched the seemingly endless rows of cereal boxes for the one I needed, he took off running down the aisle-with the cart. And yes, he ran into someone else.

The Catapult Incident

Some incidents with my children stand out in my mind so much that I give them a name. Last year, the four of us attended a banquet at a country club. Crisp white table linens covered the round tables. There were multiple forks and spoons at each seat and glass goblets from which to drink. For my kids, it was different territory from the usual fast food establishments with the indoor playground, chicken nuggets, and free toy.

It was at this meal where the “catapult incident” occurred. My oldest has an engineer’s brain. He is always building things and designing something new to create. From the moment we sat down at the table, he fidgeted and squirmed in his seat. As I turned my head to talk with my husband and youngest son, my oldest took the utensils and proceeded to construct a catapult out of them. When the fork flung across the table at another guest, I realized what he had done. Did I mention that he used the utensils of the person seated next to him?

When I saw what happened, I felt my face redden. I knew, or assumed I knew, what the other guests thought about me, my parenting, and my children. And I wanted to say, “Really, we aren’t the Beverly Hillbillies!” No doubt, I was embarrassed by my son’s behavior at that dinner. I wanted to hide my head. I chastised him, and then he was embarrassed too. “Mom, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean for that to happen, and I didn’t know that wasn’t my fork!”

When my children do something childish, without thinking, and even out of ignorance, I am often embarrassed. Even when they are flat-out disobedient in public, doing something they know they shouldn’t do, I am embarrassed. I’ve come to realize that too often I respond to them out of that embarrassment. In those situations, I care more about what other people think of me than about responding to my children’s heart. While their behavior often requires correction and even consequences, I also need to pay attention to what is going on in my own heart. When their behavior becomes about me and how it makes me look to others, I need to do a heart check.

In reality, my responses can often reflect the idols lurking in my heart. The ones I’ve established on a throne to worship, crafted out of my own wishes and desires. These idols are not made of metal or stone, but they are idols just the same. Because when I care more about the thoughts and affirmations of other people than about what God thinks, I’ve created an idol. When I measure my value and success by the verbal accolades from others about my boy’s good behavior, I’ve created an idol. And when I react out of embarrassment to my children’s behavior, it just might be because I’ve put my idol in first place before God.

Opportunities to Remove Idols

Before I had children, I didn’t realize how much I desired and yearned for affirmation from others. God has used my boys as mirrors, reflecting back to me the pride and selfishness I didn’t know were hiding in the deepest crevices of my heart. Situations like the “catapult incident” provide the opportunity for me to recognize, acknowledge, and remove the idols.

Tim Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods that once we remove an idol, we have to replace it with love for Christ. When I saturate my mind and heart with the truth that God loves me more than I could ever understand, I cannot help but respond to him with love and gratitude. When I realize the great lengths he went to so that I could be his child, my heart is overwhelmed. The more I remind myself of who I am because of Christ, the affirmations from others pale in comparison. Because the truth is, being his child is all I’ve ever wanted. It’s what I was made for and what my heart desires most. Everything else is just a false substitute.

I’m sure my children will continue to do the unexpected, have poor manners, and even act out in public. When I realize that I am angry and embarrassed because desire for affirmation is trying to reign in my heart, I must run straight to Christ. Only in his presence and in the shadow of his grace do the idols in my heart begin to crumble. And when I dwell on Christ’s great love for me, my idols fall from their throne, freeing me to love him as the first thing in my heart.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com Kim Shay

    I can relate to this. Once, my youngest walked into a small stationery store, saw the light switch, and turned it off. Thankfully, in the darkness, it was apparent we were the only ones in the store other than the manager. I’ve felt these struggles, too, when my son decided to pierce his ears. My older son has long hair. We feel these things as if they’re running through a grocery store. I’ve had to feel the rebuke of the Lord, reminding me that 1) He’s not finished with them, and 2) these are incidentals compared to their hearts. And my embarrassment only makes them angry, and that’s not helpful. I’m learning to accept those pitying looks about my two boys, but I love them dearly.

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  • jj

    I’ve always struggled with what others think of me. This has only intensified since having a child, and sometimes I feel anxious being in public with her because I’m so worried she will disrupt others.

    I believe it is Christlike and loving to be concerned with how our children are affecting the people around us, but as you mention, the motives of the heart are key. Too often my main concern is the perception others have of us and not the actual sin that is happening. Thanks for the reminder that Christ already approves of me and loves me, which is the most important thing!

  • http://www.catherinestrodeparks.com Catherine Parks

    I was having a conversation with two strangers at a restaurant the other day when my 2 yr old decided to throw himself on the floor in protest because I tore his bagel into two pieces. It was a full on, completely limp kind of fit. I was horrified but calmly, quietly threatened his life (okay, not quite, but close) and took him to the bathroom. When I came back, the ladies both mentioned how calm and relaxed I was with my kids. This was, of course, shocking to me. But I realized they were not judging me based on my kids’ behavior, but on mine. People expect kids to disobey in public, but what they watch is the parents’ reaction. Many, many times my reaction has been out of embarrassment and I so appreciate you pointing out the idolatry of this. I’m definitely guilty. And yet, you’re right. Knowing my acceptance in Christ and His love frees me to not freak out about it. And now I should run because my toddler is eating Play-Doh.

  • http://Lisatarplee.com Lisa Tarplee

    This hits home. It’s easy to focus on what others think and I’m often embarrassed by my boys’ behavior. So glad he’s always at work in them and in me.

  • http://mirandasharp.wordpress.com Miranda Sharp

    Thank you so much for this! It is beautifully written and so true. What a wonderful call to check our hearts. Thanks again!

  • Whitney

    Amen, Christina! I appreciate the openness and vulnerability of this piece, in an area that is all too common for moms out there. This has definitely been a struggle of mine, and has only been heightened as we keep adding kiddos to our home; we’re already the focus of everyone’s attention a lot of times in public! Thanks for reflecting the beauty of Christ in this article, both in truth and grace.

  • Lori

    This was one of the biggest struggles for me with parenting, especially with my first, who has always been a stubborn, energetic, difficult kid.

    I do think, too, though, that we can make this easier on each other by being empathetic when we see struggling parents and being an encouragement to them. One of the kindest things that has ever happened to me occurred when my husband was very ill and all three of the kids and I went with him to the office. I spent about an hour and a half trying to keep them under control–and not doing a great job of it–in the waiting room. And an older couple came up to me as they were leaving and said, “We’ve been watching you, and we love your kids and think you are doing a great job. You’ve sure made us glad our kids are grown, though!” And it was just exactly what I needed to hear, and helped me get through a really hard day.

    So at the level of our own hearts, this is perfect, and we do need to be less dependent on the praise of others. But I also think we can help other women, especially moms of little kids, by being encouraging, by sharing a kind word or smile to let them know that everybody in the room isn’t sitting there judging them and thinking they are failing as parents.

  • http://outofmyallegedmind.com/ Nancy Franson

    Christina! This is outstanding. Love the Keller quote.

    And, I’m not sure whether this will encourage your or discourage you, but the battle over this kind of idolatry doesn’t end, even when our children become young adults. Somebody near and dear to my heart (ahem) recently was scheduled to play piano for the evening service at my church, and he may have arrived late and missed the prelude and first hymn. Somebody’s mother may have been tempted to strangle him.

    When he played during the communion service, that same mother wept for the beauty of his offering. Many others were blessed by his gift. So glad God intervened and didn’t allow that mother to focus on the few minutes the young man was late.

  • Ashley

    Excellent. Thank you.

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  • Michelle

    Well said, it really is about the heart’s desire. I just want to point out how important it is to teach children to be aware of the needs of others around them in public places. Sometimes parents are more concerned for their child’s “need” than the legitimate needs of other shoppers/viewers/etc. So while that particular parent isn’t at all concerned about what others think of them, they’ve erred to the other extreme of idolatry- apathy toward others. They not only could care less what others think, but they cannot be bothered to care how others feel, much less teach it to their wild child… Both idols are equally sinful. I agree wholeheartedly with this article, but I felt the need to also point out another aspect, because how our children behave in public IS important.

  • http://www.mistywainscottphotography.com Misty

    Oh my goodness. This could not have come across my screen at a better time. I had just laid my 2 year old down for a nap after a bout of absolute ear shattering screams and was so embarrassed that my neighbors would hear him and think God only knows what about my parenting behaviors. You are 110% correct and spot on. Thank you for the lesson. God Bless!!!

  • http://tasha-marie.com/ Tasha Marie

    Love this story and love the message. It makes me think also – how must OUR Father feel when we act up in public? :) Just a thought that came to mind! Thanks for the great read.

  • Eric Farley

    Very well put. It is often hard for us to see the idols in our lives, but God in His grace exposes them. I would ask, How does the Gospel free us to truly love our children? While the author here brushes up against this idea in her article, it is not emphasized as much as how the Gospel helps us truly love Christ. I find that when I am unconcerned about how I look (to others, or how I want my kids to behave) or feel, and I respond to my child’s heart, my own wild boys respond to that grace. As a result of this, even as inconsistently as we might get it right, our kids will not only love us more, but they will understand the gospel better.

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  • Susan Smith

    I had a two year old when I had twins, a boy and a girl, and most of the time I had to shop by myself with them all because of my husbands schedule. I never over reacted, but when they four and two, they started seeing other kids having a fit at the register where all the candy and gum are put right in front of them. They started whining and crying only once. I told them no, we checked out and when we got to the car I told them if that happened again, they would stay home with their dad and not go shopping with me again. They knew I meant it and I would follow through. They never did it again. It isn’t all that difficult to say no or to follow through, it isn’t going to hurt their psyche and if it hurts their feelings, they get over it real quick. What I see these days is mothers and fathers telling their kids not to do something but they seldom if ever follow through with any kind of discipline. Kids are smart, even two year olds, and the Bible says discipline is love. Parents need to get a backbone and follow through. If you don’t teach them to behave when they are little it will never happen later. My daughter was upset that I disciplined my grandson when he was small and I had to take care of her and the kids for a month. It caused a rift for awhile, but who do you think my grandson asks for all the time? That would be Grandma. Just be firm and do it with love but above all, follow through. Counting 1=2=3 can get your child hurt or killed. Love them enough to discipline them.

  • Linda Trammel

    Well, am I going to be the only one on this site who is disagreeing with “the heart” of the child? Whatever happened to discipline at home? A child will not act out in public if they are disciplined correctly at home. I never had a problem with my two sons “acting out in public”. Never. I believe in the old fashion way of spanking that little bohine (and no I don’t mean abuse) when they want their way. WE are the parents and the ones in control. Many parents yield to whatever the child wants. I have never understood that philosophy. The Bible definitely says not to spare the rod and spoil the child. I was never afraid that my children would do something crazy while we were out in public.

    • Michelle

      Linda you make an excellent point. The author mentions “the heart of the child.” But so does the Bible- it says “FOOLISHNESS is bound up in the heart of a child, BUT THE ROD OF DISCIPLINE will drive it (foolishness) far from him. Hmmm. I think too many parents get caught up in putting their child’s “heart” (which contains foolishness) rather than the heart of God. In a sense, the parent is now putting their child’s desires over the will of God. Idolatry…

      • Linda Trammel

        Thank you Michelle for backing me up. I could not have said it better than you.

  • Shopping Solution

    As my 2 little boys outgrew the seats in the grocery cart, I was worried about how to keep them with me. I knew friends who couldn’t shop with their kids; they had to leave them with hubby or babysitter, but I didn’t want to resort to that. One kind elderly lady told me in a store one day that she took her 6 kids shopping and made them all hold onto the cart. Ah! I hadn’t thought of that! But how to make them? I read in a book how to leave your cart in the store and take your child out to the car for a stern reprimand/spank. I also promised them a sucker already waiting for them in the car at the end of the shopping trip if we made it back with no incident, AND no asking me to buy anything. That gets on my nerves so I decided to make it a rule!

    Well, it only took one trip out of the store. I had a plan, so I reacted calmly and didn’t fly off the handle. I reminded myself that I’m a “professional” stay-at-home mom who did my research, consultation, and strategic planning. I knew I had stated the rules clearly, so I simply left my cart in the store, gave a small spank in my van, waited for the tears to stop, and returned to try it again. When I said, “Hold onto the cart!” they responded and became trained to continue to respond. Now they’re older so I let my 7-yr old go choose which bananas he wants, and other items, which helps him learn to read labels, and my 9-yr old can push the cart. Now they’re able to thoughtfully ask if I’ll buy something compared to when they were younger and just grabbed and begged.

    I hope this helps someone! Just wanted to provide a practical how-to that worked for me. It only took a bit of time, which was well worth it.

  • Hjordis Owens

    I’ve read most of these comments and they are really good comments. There were a couple that, like me, after reading the article wondered. . .ok, so how did this end? Were the children disciplined? How did you solve this problem? These moments of bad behavior just don’t go away with children who like to do these things in public thinking we are more likely to give way.

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