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If you work in a large office and come in late, it would be embarrassing if the boss yelled at you for your tardiness in front of the whole office. Although you do need to correct your behavior, by berating you in front of everyone, the boss has acted in an aggressive and shaming way. The same holds true when you discipline your child in front of others. Having an audience watch while you discipline a child adds an extra element to discipline: you embarrass the child publicly. While some behavior calls for comment from a parent, parenting experts often feel it’s best to take the child somewhere private to discipline them.
The goal when you discipline your child is to correct a behavior. With distractions, like an audience of friends or strangers in a grocery store, it can be very challenging to actually accomplish your goal. The child is likely to focus more on his or her embarrassment rather than on the real purpose for the discipline. So it may not only be a shame-producing way to discipline a child, but also an ineffective one.
If you are in a public area, like a grocery store, child development experts suggest leaving the store, to minimize distractions. If at a friend or family member’s house, finding a quiet room where you can discipline is most desirable. When necessary, if a child is really misbehaving, throwing a fit, or has been very aggressive towards others, it may be best to take the child home. Most experts suggest avoiding having an argument with the child while driving the child home. Actually, driving home and not paying attention to the child when possible, can give you a cool-down and a time to think about the consequences for behavior.
It can be helpful with young children to remind them of the behavior you expect when you are in public. This can help avoid having to discipline your child in public. Before exiting a car to have a family dinner you might remind them you expect them not to criticize Aunt Flora’s cooking if they don’t care for it. If you’re planning a play date with a child’s friend, you might remind them you expect them to share toys and only say nice things. There are numerous rules for behavior in certain settings which may warrant a reminder or two before you actually let your child loose in the setting.
With very young children, under the age of three or four, you may occasionally need to remind them of things in a public venue. On a play date, if a child is not sharing, you could simply say, “We share our toys on play dates.” This is not exactly the same as embarrassing the child but simply reminding them of the rule.
As well as not remembering to discipline your child in public, you should not discuss your child in a negative way in public, and especially in front of the child. Saying, “John still has potty accidents,” or “Both my sons are getting Fs in school” are shame statements, and a passive-aggressive way of approaching parenting problems. Similarly, parents discussing or arguing about discipline in front of a child weakens authority. If you have disputes with a spouse about the way you discipline your child, these conversations are best kept private, or saved until after children have gone to bed.
Choosing to discipline your child in front of other siblings is also a mixed bag. On the one hand, it can be beneficial for other children to see family rules consistently supported and enforced. Yet highly competitive siblings may “gloat” if one sibling gets in trouble. With older children, discipline is best a private matter between yourself and the child, and should not be discussed in front of siblings.