When “Shush!” Doesn’t Work: 11 Tips for Keeping Kids Behaved at Public Events

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iStock_000002590009SmallIt happens all the time and much to the dismay of their well-meaning parents, but children have a nasty habit of interrupting public events, whether it’s a movie, theater production, concert or religious service. Recently, an acclaimed violinist actually put down her instrument in the middle of a performance in London to scold the parents who brought a coughing child to her recital.

“It was pretty cringeworthy,” one concertgoer told New York radio station WQXR. The violinist, Kyung Wha Chung, “got in a little huff and put her violin under her arm as if she wouldn’t go on and then she must have heard the kid coughing . . . and said something . . .”

That particular case may represent an extreme. It’s more likely that your disruptive kids will earn you stink-eyes from fellow audience members, not a show-stopping rebuke from an actual performer. Nonetheless, most parents would still prefer to avoid such uncomfortable situations, so we asked etiquette expert Jodi R. R. Smith of the Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Boston and parenting expert Jennifer Chung, co-founder of the parenting community and online health record Kinsights.com, for their top tips for parents seeking to avoid fiascos at public events. Here’s what they had to say:

Set Expectations Ahead of Time and Get Them Excited. Chung advises talking to your children about where you’re going, explaining to them not only why it’s an exciting event, but also why it’s important to be respectful. That “might help make them be more attentive and engaged,” she said. And don’t forget to inform them that there will be consequences — for instance, leaving the event entirely — if they do act out.

Practice Whispering. Does your child know how to whisper? Toddlers, especially, often don’t. “I used a hand puppet to demonstrate outside voice, inside voice and whisper voice to my son, and he finally got it!” Chung said.

Start Small. Your child might not be ready for a Broadway production, but how about your local high school’s annual musical or a children’s dance recital? If a child “is not able to handle the show, you can leave without having to feel like you’ve lost a huge investment of your money,” Smith said. If your child does behave, that may be a sign that it’s time to move on to larger venues.

Do Your Research. Some venues, particularly religious ones, are more amenable to disruptive children than others. Smith pointed out that some have special services just for children, or separate rooms where children can play (or throw tantrums) while adults worship. Still, during other services, no one bats an eye when children scale the podium while a religious leader speaks.

Be Careful with Snacks. Snacks are a surefire way to calm an agitated child, but take care when bringing them to a public performance. Loud snacks — think rustling potato chip bags — are a bad idea, as are snacks with the potential to be very messy. You also don’t want to rely on snacks too frequently because you risk teaching your children to become dependent on snacks to alleviate boredom.

Use Other Distractions. Chung and Smith agreed that books, puzzles and small, quiet toys are a great way to keep your children happily preoccupied and calm during a public event. “Allowing children opportunities to control their own behavior with minimal interaction with the parent is a skill that will serve them well in their older years,” Smith said.

Take a Lobby Break. If a child is exhibiting extremely disruptive behavior, such as screaming, running down the aisle or laughing inappropriately, scoop her up and take her to the lobby. Explain to her that you’d really like to go back inside to watch the show and ask if she’ll be able to sit still for the performance. “Most children are pretty accurate about whether they’re going to be able to sit still,” Smith said.

Calm Your Child. If taking her to the lobby alone doesn’t lead your child to pause her bad behavior, have her count down from 10 to regain her composure. Chung suggested using “when-then” statements such as “When you calm down, then we can talk about what is upsetting you and find a solution,” or “When you act out, then we have to cut our time short and go home.”

Don’t Take Illness Symptoms Lightly. If a child’s coughing fit lasts more than 10 seconds, that’s another reason to head to the lobby to avoid hampering the enjoyment of others during the show.

Know When to Leave. If the child admits that he will not sit still for the show or the illness symptoms persist, then it’s time to go, according to Smith. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re constantly “playing yo-yo” by going back to the lobby to calm down your child only to have him act out again.

Be Patient. Just because your child can’t handle sitting through a certain show or performance right now, it doesn’t mean that she won’t be up for similar events as she gets older. There’s always next year.

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