Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Parenting in Public

My parenting convictions were put to the test a few weeks ago.

The boys and I had traveled to the Wisconsin Parents Association conference, an annual event that that refreshes, recharges and re-energizes me. I'd agreed to present three sessions at the conference: Homeschooling Boys, Let's Make Paper Airplanes and Boundless Energy: Dealing with Boy Energy. The first two were sessions I'd done before. Boundless Energy was a new one for me, created as a direct response to comments and questions from participants who attended my Homeschooling Boys session last year.

How, they wondered, does one productively co-exist with a boy (or boys) who seem to have a constant need for movement?

So this year, we talked. We agreed that boys' desire and drive for movement is not a bad thing, and that part of our job, as parents, is helping them find outlets for their energy. Our room was a testament to our beliefs: As I led the discussion, my 5-yr-old son practiced handstands at the side of the room with another boy. No one minded. We understood that the boys need to move, that they relate and build relationships through physical interactions.

But what about other, less-friendly circumstances? While we all felt quite comfortable letting our boys be boys in the safe confines of our classroom, a number of the moms expressed frustration with pre-existing playgroups back home, playgroups where their sons are judged for wanting to play lightsabers over tea party.

The experienced moms in the room talked about the need to "find your tribe," to find a network of friends and families who understand boys' predilection to play fighting and physical activity. But the deep down question remained: How do you, as a parent, balance your sons' needs for physical activity with societal expectations? How do you handle mealtimes? Social outings? It's one thing to tolerate jumping off the couch at home; it's another thing to let your sons run rampant at the public museum.

I shared my personal reality. At home, my boys rarely sit through a meal. My 10-yr-old is prone to eating on his feet; he's still my Most Likely to Fall Off a Chair for No Apparent Reason. My 8-yr-old constantly rocks his chair and all of my boys are more than happy to leap up from the table to peer out the window. And often, I let it go. I reinforce proper behavior, but I know that expecting my four boys, ages 5 to 13, to eat every meal while seated properly is a bit beyond their current capabilities. So I tolerate a certain amount of physical movement during a meal. I know that my sons are quite capable of adapting their behavior to the situation (even at this age, they understand the difference between lunch at home and Christmas dinner at Grandma's), and that their behavior will change as they grow.

But at lunch that day, in the cafeteria, my convictions were tested. Boy #4, age 5, finished eating long before the rest of us. He started turning circles 'round the column next to our table. I had a choice: I could deny his natural need for movement and shame him into his seat. Or I could tolerate his non-intrusive behavior.

I chose Choice #2, acutely aware that my actual parenting would speak far more than any words I spoke in the classroom. At the same time, I was acutely aware of fear that plagues so many boy-parents: the fear that we will be judged as inadequate or ineffective parents for letting our sons be boys.

So talk. Discuss. How do you handle parenting in public? Are you fearful of judgement? Does that fear affect your parenting?


  1. As a mom of 3 boys, I feel I am constantly saying "No! Please come here! Don't stand on that! Please do NOT jump off of that!!" Get me? Then when I get back in the van with them (where they mostly have to be still--seatbelts, y'know), I berate myself for worrying too much about what other people think. I expect a lot from my boys (probably too much!), but I need to relax a little. It certainly is hard, though, when they are running (mostly the 3 year old) in the library. Unfortunately, also, my boys have their father's naturally loud voice, so the words "Inside voices, please" really has no meaning to them!

  2. I don't have boys, but yes, I do worry about my parenting in public. My kid is so well behaved, she looks like a statue at times -- so when she lets loose, we tend to let her go. This isn't a falling-out-of-her-chair issue, but more of a how-sarcastic-can-I-be? thing. I end up worrying that others will find me way too okay with her jokes and other remarks.

    And all of this is with good reason. Unfortunately, people do judge others' parenting. I've been given unsolicited advice on how to get my kid to be less picky about her food or be more outgoing or take more risks. *sigh* It's hard enough for me not to label her; why must others?

    Still, I do what I have to do and try not to explain too much to people. Parenting is hard, and karma is always a bitch.

  3. I have 3 boys. 3 are always doing something. (though one is more external energy and 1 is more needy/internal energy)

    like you, I would have let my 5 yr old circle round a column after lunch.

    I have never been bothered by their need for motion/physical activities. I never have looked at it as 'something that needs to be dealt with'. I have one (the most energetic) who had moderate autism until he was 6. I am sure I must have gotten lots of stares and people saying things behind my back. I never paid any attention to that. Many people do not agree with our "almost unschooling" approach to life. That's their issue, not mine. I have never been an 'approval seeker'.

    When we started homeschooling, I started the day with letting them run and plat and be wild for an hour or so after breakfast, because they needed to get that out before we did anything schoolish. a lot of days was me reading to them while they ran and flipped and hung upside down. I loved it! it keeps my life from being boring and monotonous.

  4. Tolerate the behaviour as much as possible. We definitely try not to have rules that we wouldn't enforce in public at home; that is a recipe for disaster and will lead to the child not respecting you as they quickly figure out you lose all courage in public. Our kids are mainly not allowed to break things or hurt people, that's the standard. So if they can jump off the couch without breaking it (which they actually can't, so they don't) then they do it. Same with out in public, they can play if it's safe. Actually, I join right in! We are always playing hide and seek in the supermarket, trying to tail anonymous "spies" in the mall without being caught, diving over snowbanks in the streets to hide from pretend gunfire. I think it's better. The kids learn what they can do safely and politely. Yes there are fun-prudes who don't like to see anyone having fun around them, but they can buzz off and be prudish about fun at home.

    I love the line about "finding your tribe" too.

  5. I just go ahead and parent in public. It has probably taken me a while to get to that point and find a place of security, but I've decided that my parenting choices are mine and I have to be true to them. I can't waste my energy judging others or worrying about their judgment. But I held my boys to some inside-outside behavior at home, so it wasn't so unusual in public.

  6. I started out my parenting journey chanting "no, don't touch, no, sit down, no, get off that, no get that out of your mouth"...then I realized I was not having fun...I hated parenting in public. Early on I would just stay home and let the boys be themselves rather than take them out and be the "no" machine. Then I realized this is their world also and they have a right to be themselves and exist in their world without being "no'd" to death. So now I set out with the "what can we explore today" mindset and just ignore the long as no one is getting hurt or causing a riot I just smile and keep going.

  7. I admire you ladies with more than one! I have just one little man who is 3 1/2 and in the dinosaur stage! Loud and running always! And, I constantly fight the inlaws on behavior as they say I am too lenient. The proof for me is his behavior when I'm not around. ALL my friends, teachers and the more easy-going side of the family tell what lovely manners he has! It is tough when you are constantly judged by some, but I agree with Laura@outnumberedmom. In the end it is mine and my husband's responsibility and job to raise our son in the best, most loving environment we can. Thanks for a great subject and discussion!

  8. Thank you for following my blog. I follow you as well.

    I find that even with parenting girls, I often feel judged. My girls get sassy to me in a store because I won't buy them something and I feel people judging me. Or, we allow our 9 year old to stand on mulch in a rose garden to take a photo (a passion of hers) and another parent comments about children going off the path. No, she was not off the path. She was standing on the mulch so she could take a photo of a rose. I think no matter what you do, other parents are going to raise their eyebrows and show disapproval, you just need to feel firm about your convictions in raising your children.

    There is a song about how we don't know what someone else is going through when we see their child act up, etc. I try to keep that in mind.

  9. Thanks for all of your great comments! Parenting in public is tough, I think, because we all have different ideas about what a "good parent" should do. Some believe that a parent's most imp. job is to help their children get along in the world, fit into society. Those parents may be more likely to keep their kids off the mulch, for instance. Other parents think their job is to nurture their children's creativity -- so they might be more likely to let the kids take a picture on the mulch. Most of us try to find a middle ground -- try to find ways to encourage our children's interests while respecting the rights of others. It's not easy, though!