API Leader Wisdom: How to respond to other parents punishing their children in public?

Q: My family went to a restaurant the other night, and there was another family there with a toddler who was crying. The father roughly took the boy outside and came back a few minutes later. I assume the boy was punished in some way, as he was very upset and crying loudly that he wanted his mother, but the father didn’t allow him to do so. Our own children didn’t seem to notice, but the scenario was very upsetting to me and my husband. We didn’t know what to do, so we didn’t do anything. I worry about the example our lack of response sets for our children, and what — if anything — we could have said or done?

Q: My family went to the park recently, and there was a father yelling at his preteen son. The father then grabbed the boy’s wrist. They boy was yelling at his father to let go, and his father then twisted the boy’s arm in a way that we thought it might break. I stepped in and told the man he had to stop, and the man became very angry with me, telling me to stay out of his business and that he can parent however he likes. I was so scared that it was going to escalate, but thankfully after that, the man walked off. The boy with him was very quiet. Did I act inappropriately? I worry whether this was a wake-up call to that man, or if his son would be punished later for it.

A: We have all been in public and seen an overwhelmed parent losing her temper with her child — and many of us have been in that position ourselves!

It is tough to know how to respond when we witness this happening with another parent. In both of these situations, the parent losing his cool was the father. It may be most helpful that the person responding to another father is a father himself.

Mothers responding to other overwhelmed mothers often goes well — we have been there, and we know intuitively what to say to be both compassionate toward the mother and toward the child. But think about if the parent approaching you in your overwhelmed moment was a man. You may be thinking, what does he know about being in a mother’s shoes?

If your husband or another man was able to, he could respond in a way that would be both non-confrontational and effective. In the first scenario, the other family’s father took his son outside. It could’ve been very timely if your husband needed to go out to the car to grab something at the same time. Many parents who hit their children won’t do it if they’re around other people, and it might have given the man a moment to calm down and see the situation in a different light. Your partner could also offer an encouraging word if given the opportunity.

It doesn’t seem life-changing, but these kinds of subtle actions and words can be seeds of change that may cause others to think twice or pique their interest into other parenting approaches.

Likewise, in the second scenario, it may have helped if your husband was the person to approach the father, although we understand the urgency of the situation. This is a tougher situation, because the boy could’ve been badly injured. It should be addressed in a more direct manner. Depending on this situation, it may have been appropriate to report to authorities — as what you witnessed could be categorized as overt abuse. However, sadly, even this situation will likely fall under “none of your business” in the United States where corporal punishment is legal.

It is awful to watch, and while you definitely want to talk to your children witnessing it — and perhaps talking to your children about how your family does not do that and how you want to help other parents to find other ways to teach their children, may just prick the other father’s ears — the best response may be just offering your presence and the opportunity for the other parent to calm down his immediate response.

Many parents have found that even in these tough situations where the other parent is not open to support, we can still offer support to the child. Making eye contact with the child, which a child often can’t do with their angry parent if they feel shamed, can be empowering to the child. Another idea is to involve the child, if you’re given the chance, such as through a compliment, which can help the other parent regain perspective.

A mom once shared with Attachment Parenting International (API) about how an older couple offered her children a quarter each because “they were working so hard on being patient waiting for their food.” At the time of this unexpected compliment, their mom begged to differ, and she was struggling to keep her cool, but the older couple’s actions gave her encouragement and helped her remember that her children were acting their age and she needed to adjust her expectations.

It was a turning point for her that helped her see her children’s behavior for what it was and started her on the way to eventually find and gain support on how to relate to her children appropriately for their normal child development expectations, rather than how she herself was raised.

It just goes to show that even the seemingly smallest gesture toward a stressed-out parent can have an incredible ripple effect for her family.

Have a parenting question? Contact your local API Support Group to speak with an API Leader, or if you’re not located near a parenting group, submit your question through the API Warmline.

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Q&A: Baby dislikes car seat

690096_silent_screamQ: I have a 2-month-old son who suddenly really dislikes being in his car seat. He cries inconsolably during car rides. I have tried talking soothingly to him, singing and offering a pacifier. When able, I have sat in the backseat with him, and this works best. But most of the time when we’re in the car, I am driving and there isn’t another person who can sit back there with my son. It’s heart-breaking to hear him cry and cry. Short of buying ear plugs, do you have any ideas?

A: I know from personal experience how nerve-wracking and upsetting this can be.

It presents a tricky conflict between of needs between comfort and safety. My daughter went through a similar stage when she was a baby. What worked for us was for me to sit in the backseat to nurse, comfort and hang out with her.

A: Your son sounds like mine.

He hated his car seat. It was a drastic difference from his older sisters who would usually sleep during a car ride. It didn’t matter how short or how long the car ride was, my son would cry the entire way. Like your baby, my son was comforted best when I was able to sit in the backseat with him, but like you, I was usually doing the driving.

I tried many different things, and what ended up working the best was to cover him up in one of my sweaters so it has my comforting smell and to have a night light on when it was dark. I also only went on long car rides when someone else could be in the backseat, like his sisters, who could talk to him and comfort him. My son’s car seat discomfort lessened as he grew older and finally went away completely when we were able to switch him to a forward-facing car seat.

A: This happened with my son, too, and it was very stressful.

We took baby to the chiropractor’s, but what ended up working best for us was switching to a rear-facing convertible car seat and using a white-noise machine. Still, whenever possible, I would ask my husband to drive so I could sit in the backseat with baby.

A: My daughter also hated her car seat, but we learned it was because she was suffering from acid reflux.

The combination of the seat belt pushing against her stomach and the angle of the seat worsened the reflux. To ease the ride for her, I rolled up a baby blanket and placed it in the groove of the back of the car seat, as directed by her health care provider, and also adjusted her car seat harness so it’s not too tight (keeping it within safety standards of no slack). This helped. Another thing is that my daughter had motion-sickness, so driving slower around turns also helped. Another trick was singing, and as she grew older, she liked to join in on the singing.

To get her into the car seat, I would allow an extra 10 minutes so she could explore the car seat first before trying to buckle her in, explaining at the same time that she needs to be in the car seat for safety and that she would be out of the car seat as soon as possible once we arrived at our destination. I would then transition her into “car seat mode” by inviting her to sing a song with me.

I also limited my driving during the week, and then ran errands on the weekends when my husband was home and available to stay home with her.

Q: It seems like most babies go through a phase of disliking the car seat.

I would limit unnecessary driving. It seemed to get better when my babies were tall enough to see out of the window.

Q&A: Toddler fights bedtime

723868_sleeping_girlQ: My 2-year-old son doesn’t calm down easily for bedtime, and my wife and I need some ideas. We’ve always coslept with him and my wife breastfeeds him, and we’re keeping to a bedtime routine, but a few months ago, our son began to really fight bedtime, even when he is very tired. I really need some help as it’s really hard to not lose my cool when I’m still up at midnight trying to get my child to sleep!

A: That sounds like my 2-year-old daughter! If it makes you feel any better, our pediatrician said fighting sleep like that tends to be a sign of intelligence!

It still often takes us an hour or so to get her down, but here are some things that helped us manage better and get her to sleep at 9:00-9:30 p.m. instead of 10:00-11:00 p.m.:

  • If she’s not up from nap by 3:00 p.m., there’s no way she’ll get to sleep before 10:00-11:00 p.m. So we ended up moving lunch to an earlier time, so that she is able to start naptime sooner in order to be done with her nap before 3:00 p.m.
  • If, for whatever reason, she hasn’t started her nap in time to be awake by 3:00 p.m., we skip nap and put her to bed for the night earlier than usual, say around 6:30 p.m. We cosleep, too, so when we skip naptime, I watch for the second she starts to stir — around 10:00-11:00 p.m. — and nurse her back down before she fully wakes up. That tends to prevent her from treating early bedtime as a nap.

Even still, it can get really hard trying to get any toddler to sleep at bedtime.

If I start to get annoyed with my daughter, my husband will take her and walk her or read her a book while I do something to relax. Then he brings her back to bed and goes in the living room to unwind. Doing it in shifts like that helps us both have a bit of a break, so we can cool off by ourselves if we start to get upset.

I’ve also noticed that if we wait for our daughter’s sleepy cues, it’s too late. I think kids who fight sleep, often don’t show them until they’re on the verge of a second wind. I’ve tried to notice when she tends to look sleepy, and then I try to get her in bed about 15 minutes before that.

If she starts rubbing her eyes or yawning, we have an easier time if we skip routine and just go right to bed.

A: It sounds like a second wind and an over-tired kiddo.

Instead of trying to manipulate your nap and bedtime, how about waking earlier? Then naptime can be moved sooner and bedtime as well.

Also when my child has a difficult time getting to sleep, we go into complete quiet time. There is no verbal communicating other than a soothing “ssshhhhh” sound. Lights are out, and white noise is on.

Another thing I recommend is keeping a journal of your days and sleep patterns for a couple weeks and see if there are any patterns with the easy nights and the rough ones. Some children react this way due to food sensitivities, changes in routine and other external factors that are not always apparent until we begin to notice a pattern.