The Challenge of Parenting in Public

by Kelley Mathews

Little girl in pink dress on sofa closes face by hands

Recently, I heard an advertisement for a restaurant that offers a “good child discount” for parents whose kids behave well during dinner. I laughed. I’m pretty sure there were some restaurants that would have paid my family to leave when our girls were young, but good child discount? Yeah, not really.

One huge trigger for anger as a parent is when our kids embarrass us in public. I’m sure yours never do. But mine made quite a successful career out of it. We get red-faced, our adrenaline accelerates, and suddenly it seems that everyone within five kilometers is staring at us and our terribly behaved offspring, silently (or not so silently) judging us.

Anger is a pretty common response to that fear and shame, and more often than not, the anger erupts at those young perpetrators of the embarrassing deed. We say and do things toward our kids we never wanted to say or do.

How do we get past the feelings of anger that public shaming elicit and not pass them on to our kids?

My liberating parenting low point

We moved to a new city and a new church when our middle child was four. Coincidentally, the girls went to that church’s Vacation Bible School the first week we moved in. During the Sunday service, the kids presented a program of songs and verses they had learned all week. My daughter presented a bit more.

That morning, in putting on her favorite dress, she had forgotten to button it all the way down. So in her vigorous dancing, the dress kept flying open in front of every person in our new church. Bad enough. But there was worse. Because you see, she had also forgotten to put on anything underneath that dress. No, I hadn’t checked. With a new baby and a new church and unpacked boxes everywhere, letting her dress herself seemed reasonable at the time. Until she starred in the show like no other children’s program.

I was mortified. Tempted to anger at her for being so careless. Sure we would never attend this church again! Until I realized—these people could not possibly think less of me in the future then they did at that moment. Public expectation was at its worst. I could only go up. It was quite freeing, really.

But how close I had come to allowing other peoples’ opinions determine whether or not I was a good mother. How ready I was to blame my child in anger for what “they” would think of me. No one had put me on trial to defend myself as a parent. I had done it myself. And I could take myself off.

Parenting on trial

Oh yes, people are often more than willing to put us on trial. The looks in the store when our kids throw a tantrum. The sideways glance when we mention what we let our kids eat for dinner. The “my children never behaved that way” after ours just ran through the church building and knocked over the welcome table water pitcher?

But we put ourselves on trial when we let their choice to judge affect our choice to react. They are not your boss.

What does God say is important?

“The Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8)

No “walk quietly in church.” No “always make sure you are dressed properly.” No “good behavior discount.” God’s expectations are simple: teach your kids to love what matters and know who matters.

Can we live with those expectations? Can we let the unrealistic expectations of others run past us and wash out like dry dust in the rain? Can we hear the criticisms and stand tall anyway, knowing we are majoring on what matters with our children? If so, we can go a long way toward stopping those angry outbursts at our kids when they defy others’ expectations and we get embarrassed.

Teach your kids to love what matters and know who matters. If they also wear underwear to church? Bonus.

Jill Richardson

JillRichardson
Jill is a writer, speaker, pastor, and mom of three. She likes to travel, grow flowers, cause trouble, and research her next project. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and dark chocolate. Her passion is partnering with the next generation of faith. She blogs at http://jillmrichardson.com/. 
More by this author>