I still remember the first time my then-2-year-old son had a public temper tantrum. We had an early morning flight out of Philadelphia, and he had a complete meltdown in the middle of the airport while we were waiting in the TSA security line.
There he was, flat on the ground, screaming his head off. I’m pretty sure that if I could, I would have pushed a button to make us completely disappear. Or at least have found the family travelers' line so we could jump to the front.
My husband and I had never seen anything like it before. Our oldest was pretty well-behaved in public. But since she had been our only child for a couple of years, she always had our full and undivided attention.
The audience of hundreds of people waiting in line with us at a ridiculously miserable hour have an amazing effect on my parenting skills.
When my kid is completely losing his mind, I do my best to have some level of empathy and control my anger, but I’m only human. And after dealing with it day in and day out, I’m not proud to admit that I’ve let a few choice words slip out. No name calling, mind you, but the grumbles through my teeth are a bit more audible than they should be sometimes, and the lifting and moving into his room is not usually performed with a ton of love, especially when I’m PMSing.
But when we’re out in public, aside from feeling like a complete and utter cliche, like someone is filming me for a movie or reality show of some kind, the audience of hundreds of people waiting in line with us at a ridiculously miserable hour have an amazing effect on my parenting skills. And when it’s fellow parents from my kid’s school, well, I have the patience of the saint.
That’s exactly what happened the other week when my son, now 5, had a rare meltdown after school. I knew he was tired and hungry, but I allowed him to stay a little later to play with his friends. And so, when it was time to leave, he completely lost it, unlike anything I’d seen from him in a very long time, at least when we weren’t in the privacy of our home. He started throwing shoes and socks—he even hit me, and continued the tantrum until I was able to talk him down and into the car.
But knowing that there were other parents watching really forced me to think long and hard about my actions and choices. I was firm but patient, calmly reminding him of the consequences for his behavior. And I was consistent without yelling or even raising my voice whatsoever.
I’m not going to lie. It was pretty tough, especially since I was dealing with my three older children all by myself, and attempting to get everyone in the car.
Now I’m pretty sure I would have had a completely different reaction had we been at home. And that’s not something I’m proud to admit. As much as I try to maintain a level head, I’m much quicker to raise my voice and lose my cool when I’m in the comfort of my own home.
But knowing that people were watching me forced me to really think about my choices and decide the best course of action, the one that I’m well aware of, but oftentimes don’t have the full capacity to reach when I’m tired or hormonal—or a combination of both.
Since then, I’ve really tried to learn from that public meltdown and allow how I handled it, and quite frankly, how my son responded to me, to inform my parenting behaviors at home. It’s not easy, but when I remember how proud I felt about how I was able to keep my cool, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be.
And wow, our relationship is so much better when I take a breath or three before I react.
But really, the fact that I had absolutely zero parenting guilt from our public interaction is a strong argument for continuing to remind myself to keep myself in check. Yes, I’m human. And I mess up. And Lord knows I apologize. But when we act in a way that might not be our best choice, it’s only natural to feel guilty. We want our kids to see the best of us.
There’s really no surprise that being watched can change how you respond in a situation. Who hasn’t heard of the Hawthorne Effect?
But there’s something to the idea of parenting like everyone is watching. Because even though we might be in the comfort of our own homes, we’re not really alone. Our kids are watching. And learning. And along with establishing a relationship of trust and love, we want to be an example of how parents should act.