Help! My Toddlers Don’t Listen to Me in Public -Everyone is Watching!

March 23, 2009 · Print This Article


Recently, a question was posted to my facebook account  from a friend whose toddlers gain the upper hand while out in public. This is a very common occurrence and one of the most difficult for parents to navigate — that is– parenting on stage in front of a live audience!

Here’s the question verbatim (names have been replaced). “Lately my kids and I have been doing great. They have been listening to me and I have been really keying into their emotions, really listening to what they are saying and what they are asking for. They have responded well to this approach.

However, today at the library they would not leave when I told them it was time to go. Child 1 was pretty much smiling and laughing at the request. After a few warnings I put their movies back on the shelf and carried the kids out of the library. It was a horrible scene, everyone was looking. I got Child 1 in her car seat and she calmed down just fine. Child 2 on the other hand needed a lot more consoling, which I did lovingly. Finally, they were both in their car seats and we were on our way. When we were driving I told them that they did not get the movies because they did not listen to me, and when I asked them why they did not listen, they did not answer.

Do you have any input on how I should have handled them at the library? I did not feel good about picking them up and carrying them out, but I did not want to negotiate with two four year olds at the library.

Thank you so much,

Mother of four year old twins


Setting limits in public is often trying for most parents. As if setting limits was not challenging enough, now parents are forced to do it on stage with an audience. First things first. As my friend Dr. Bill Whelan would say parenting means “Always being bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” What you don’t do in these situations is as important as what you do.  Parents often feel very intimidated in public, thinking that the audience is saying, “What kind of parent are you if you can’t control your children” or “I can’t believe you just did that – look what an awful parent you are, denying your children something they would enjoy.”  Regardless of the location, children need to be able to depend on their parents to support their exploration – even when that support means prohibiting them from some goal due to a misbehavior or act of disrespect on their part. At the toddler age, it can seem as if they are like a  “big kid”, however;  they are still learning rules and testing boundaries. That means they may gleefully flaunt a parent’s directives and push the limits parents impose from time to time. Despite their seeming maturity,  toddlers are still ruled by their emotions and wanting what they want right now, and can turn on a dime from a happy-go-lucky kid to a pouting, defiant bug eyed monster. Let’s talk a minute about time-outs.

Understand what a time-out is — and isn’t.

Time out is not about punishment – it is about interrupting and helping your child cope with common frustrations and modifying their behavior. While your child is in a time-out, he/she is on his own for a suggested one minute per year of their life.  Therefore, resist the urge to  check on him every few minutes or try to encourage him into drying his tears. Although at times it may require all of your effort, if you find yourself having a difficult time managing your emotions – take a time-out yourself.  Quiet time alone allows your toddler to switch gears and calm down if he/she’s gotten worked up. And, it gives you the chance to step back and not get into a power-struggle with your child. The goal of a time-out is to manage and modify an escalating situation in an calm and kind manner, and to teach your toddler to behave and manage their emotions without regressing to your child’s age, the way yelling or hitting does. Following time out, you may elect repair – which is important. Repair comes after the time-out.  See Make Use of the Time-In below.

Using the time-out.

When a time out is necessary, impose a time-out swiftly — as immediately after the problem as possible.  Use a timer to track the minutes your child is in time out. Stick to the time – no cheating as much as any parent might like to leave them in the room all day and catch a break. Once you’ve set a time, stick to it.

Location of the Time-Out.

Location of the time-out may vary from family to family and place to place. There is always a room, something like her room, or symbolic place (Super Nanny promotes the idea of naughty mats, naughty chairs, and naughty stairs).  When you’re home, it is good to make use of one location if at all possible. This way, the child learns exactly where they need to go when you say “time out.” When you are out in public, however; this prevents parents from utilizing discipline and limit setting when they feel helpless. After working with parents and professionals for many years, ideas have been flowing for time and location. For example, there are always corners in stores, bathrooms, going to the car, sitting right where you are  quietly, or using a grocery cart for younger children. If you are a parent who is  concerned about her child playing up to the audience, then the car as a timeout location will be great for your child. Some people ask why they should have to go through all this hassle?  Remember, your job is to teach and train, and their job is to learn.  A parent’s job is to help children grow into responsible pro-social adults.  Remember to use some common sense and keep in mind their safety at all times.

Make Use of the Time-In.

Time-in may be a novel idea to parents who have not heard of this before.  Toddlers misbehavior (demanding, frustration, whining, withdrawn, out of control) means the child often “does not know what to do with how they are feeling and needs the parent to be calm, take charge, be kind, stay with the child until the child and parent understand this feeling seems too much for the child alone, and help them return to what they are doing with a new option. Invariably, this helps the child trust that the parent-child relationship will almost always set things right” (Dr. Bill Whelan; Personal communication).  This document explains the use of Time-In provided by

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2 Responses to “Help! My Toddlers Don’t Listen to Me in Public -Everyone is Watching!”

  1. Lorelei Sieja on March 24th, 2009 3:21 pm

    Very good article! I have a dual degree in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education. I’ve used the “Time Out” for many years. I always talked lovingly with a child after a time out, and gave him/her the opportunity to try again the activity that had instigated the poor behavior in the first place, but I’ve never heard of the “time in” concept. This is my first time to your blog, but I will bookmark it and check in often.

  2. Sarah Wagner on March 24th, 2009 5:45 pm

    Thank you so much for sharingthis information, especially re: Time in and how to approach both the parent and the child being calm. Very helpful. My 3 year old is testing the boundaries constantly so I need reminders that he needs me to be the adult, be calm and helpful. Yelling really doesn’t work. Thank you.

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