“Alex, I understand that you are upset that you left your little bulldozer at home. Let’s try to think of something else you can play with here at the restaurant that is kind of like a bulldozer.”
Sounds like a reasonable strategy to calm an unruly preschooler, and it might have been had it not been the fifth attempt in a 45-minute dialogue between a mother and her overtired, misbehaving 3-year-old. There had been a lot of “I understand how you feel” and “use your words” woven into a gag-worthy and futile effort to forge a collaborative parent-child solution to the problem of an exhausted preschooler who is up past his bedtime in a public place.
My wife and I enjoy a night out with friends and prefer a quiet dining atmosphere. However, some evenings we eat earlier and choose a restaurant we know appeals to families with young children. At those meals, we anticipate being serenaded by a loud background buzz punctuated by the occasional shriek or short bout of crying. We expect a degree of childish behavior to come with the territory, and watching the dramas unfold brings back fond “been there, done that” memories. But, listening to those behaviors being horribly mismanaged can ruin even the most tolerant adult’s appetite in less time than it takes a parent to say, “I can see you’re unhappy, and we need to talk about why.”
In an op-ed piece, a psychotherapist asks the legitimate question, and provides the correct quick answer (New York Times, Aug. 21, 2018). I couldn’t agree more. In my experience, rewards have a very short half-life and can become disastrously inflationary in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, punishments can be either too heavy-handed or so irrational that the child fails to make a logical connection between his misbehavior and his sentence.
Unfortunately, many child behavior advisers, including the op-ed author, offer alternatives to rewards and punishment that are unworkable in real-world circumstances, such as the restaurant scenario my wife and I endured.
While it sounds very democratic to ask a 3-year-old why he is misbehaving, more often than not it should be the parent who is asking what he or she could have done differently to avoid the situation. It is likely the child has been allowed to become overtired and/or the parent may be in denial about his/her child’s intolerance for stimulating environments.
Too often the parent takes too long to realize that the water is spilling over the dam and it is time to head for shore. Children who are overtired and having a tantrum can’t participate in a rational discussion about their feelings. If that dialogue needs to happen, and that is seldom, it should be the next day after the parent has time to consider his or her own mistakes.
When it comes to managing misbehaving children, I prefer well-tailored consequences and my favorite is a humanely crafted time-out. When presented and executed properly, a time-out can break the cycle of misbehavior and give both parent and child a chance to reconsider their positions.
But at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening in a busy restaurant, neither a time-out nor philosophizing with a 3-year-old is going to work. It’s time to ask for the check and head home to bed.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at.