6 Things to remember when you see an unruly child in public

I’m guilty of it.

I’m out and about in town, trying to accomplish my grocery shopping and in my own little world.

And then I see it.

Or worse, I hear it from several aisles over: a parent caught in the midst of their child’s meltdown. 

You would think that as a mother, I would always be quick to show empathy and courtesy to a fellow mentally drained parent. Because I should get it. I have walked in their exhausted, frustrated shoes. I have cried after a trip to the grocery store from utter embarrassment.

Instead, I am just as guilty as the next person. Inwardly, I judge. I surreptitiously glance sideways at the unfolding situation. Worse, sometimes, I even try not to look at all.

Because it’s hard not to look, am I right? That’s like trying not to stare at a three-headed person or Miley Cyrus. There’s just no way you’re not going to stare.

When I see situations like this, and as my children get older, I must occasionally remind myself that a public meltdown is never as simple as a parent just needing to “get their child under control.” Quite a lot in private builds into those meltdown moments in public.

Here are a few things to consider and remember before you judge.


1.) More than meets the eye

Have you ever seen a frazzled parent out in public being snappy and short with their child who only seems to be mildly misbehaving? Or a mom who appears heartless as she ignores the crying, red-faced child in her cart?

Do you ever think that a parent is being too hard on a kid that only seems to be…acting like a kid?

What you may not realize is that there are discipline battles going on at home that spill over into public life. If mom seems overbearing, she could be simply reinforcing boundaries with her wee ones, in an effort to be consistent.

For a parent, it is a tremendously delicate balance between reinforcing a set standard of discipline while also not letting your child hold your errand-running efforts hostage. It is occasionally like trying to keep a hive of killer bees under control while at a carnival. No pressure.

And children, the magical little creatures they are, are more prone to test their boundaries while in public. The attention fuels them, and they like to up the ante with others present. Don’t ask me why they occasionally act like a badly behaved reality show celebrity, because I don’t have a reason for it.

On the flip side, if mom or dad seems a bit too relaxed over their child’s behavior, remember that what you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. Most kids are awake 10-12+ hours a day, some even before the sun. 45 minutes in the grocery store is but a snap shot of a day in the life of a parent and child.

Mom is probably exhausted afterwards, but there are still miles to go before bed time, and she has even an ounce of quiet time. And she probably doesn’t even want to talk about the pains of getting her children into the car just to make it to the store.

Parents sometimes run very thin on patience (imagine that.) Don’t be shocked when you see someone looking like they are simply trying to survive while grabbing toilet paper and milk, and their child hangs off of the side of the cart yelling something about Goldfish crackers. Don’t assume that a parent is either “good or bad” based on what you see during one trip to the store. I promise, we can tell when we are being judged.

That quote about everyone fighting their own battle? Yea, sometimes, those battles are pint-sized and they like Lego’s and animal crackers, and they freak out over the sock on their foot being askew.

Bottom line: you don’t know the whole story. 


2.) Every parent will be there/has been there. E-v-e-r-y parent.

All of us personally know at least one parent (excluding our own parents, obviously.) 

A friend. A relative. A co-worker. We may even think the world of them and their children. We probably think that they have it all together, and these shopping horror stories don’t apply to them. 

So, so not true.

Every parent has been there. Because public meltdowns, potty accidents and temper tantrums over Mickey Mouse are going to happen somewhere, somehow. It’s a rite of parenting passage that we all must go through, because we are teaching our tinies how to act in public, and that simply doesn’t happen without trial and error. 

Yes, that’s right. Even your very best friend ever, who always seems to have it all together. Even the most pulled together fellow mom you know has been there.  They too have been in a public setting when all of a sudden, their precious angels decide that THIS precise moment in time is the one to usurp all forms of authority and wreak havoc.

So, when you’re frustrated with the mom of two in line with you at the DMV, trying to keep her cool, think about your friends. Would you want someone to ridicule them? Think less of them? For something that is bound to happen at least once in their parenting journey?

You would probably sooner want to show them understanding and give them a hug in the midst of their troubles than wish to see them ridiculed.

Your friend and that mom you don’t even know – they’re both fighting the same good fight.



3.) Every one of us has been there. E-v-e-r-y single one.

I once hid from my mom at the grocery store. I climbed up on a shelf piled with thirty pound bags of dog food, and hid there quietly while my mother tried not to meltdown and the store locked itself down tighter than Fort Knox. It was hysterical to me and I was quite pleased with myself, thank you very much.

That wasn’t so much the case for my mother and the general manager of the store.  

We have ALL done something like that to our moms/dads/caregivers. We once made their attempts to accomplish even the most basic of errands a total nightmare. Because we needed to learn.

We all had to learn not to run off and not tantrum and scream when they said “no” to our incessant requests for a box of Lucky Charms.

We have all put someone through the ringer at some point with our behavior.

Somehow, we got through it, our moms got through it, and now we are well-adjusted adults who know what the protocol for proper behavior in public is. 

Well, hopefully, anyway.

It seems ridiculous to have to remind people that they were once small, too. And that they had to learn the ropes. So remember, people, you were once small, too. And you had to learn the ropes. 

So show some grace and understanding. Because someone once showed it to you

Image is not my own

Image is not my own

4.) They have as much right to be out in public as anybody.

We are not living in as child-friendly a culture as we may have used to, or that other countries have . People have seem to less and less patience for the antics of small children while out in public as the years tick by.

 While on the flip-side, there are kiddos out there who especially need discipline and direction, and have parents who are reluctant to give it to them.

I. Get. It.

The fact is, though, while it might not always be convenient for YOU, parents and their children have as much right to be out in public as anybody else. Let that sink in. Go ahead and let it ferment for a while so that you truly grasp what I’m saying.

This means that in your travels, you WILL encounter crying children. You WILL see children having temper tantrums. You will come across parents trying to do their best, and sometimes failing. You will encounter children. Not all of them will be well-behaved or super cute like the Olsen twins. Because children are not mannequins. Children are not objects that are only for seeing and not hearing. Children are PEOPLE.

No, I don’t think that children who are destructive, disruptive and overly obnoxious are fun to be around. BUT, that’s ultimately their parent’s business, isn’t it?

I see WAY more adults on a daily basis who are rude – drivers who text and drive while cutting you off, people talking loudly on their cell phones in public, people who are rude to their servers at a restaurant, people who bump into you and don’t excuse themselves, people who talk during a movie, people who abandon their shopping cart in the middle of the grocery store parking lot, people who are just plain grumpy and unpleasant– than I do children.

And you know who has more of an excuse? The child, not the grown person.

While sometimes it isn’t pleasant, it’s an unavoidable part of life. It’s part of sharing the planet with seven billion other people, and part of its population is still in diapers. It’s gonna happen. This world doesn’t cater to you, it doesn’t cater to me. <Deep soothing breath>

Take it from someone who at times is well-versed in what it means to live with crying children: Your life will still go on if you encounter a crying child a restaurant. I promise. Mine has gone on after having liquid dumped down the front of her in public. 

You can make it.

5.) You never know if there is a disability involved

We live in an entirely different world than we did thirty or even ten years ago. So much has changed, and we should be more aware than any generation before us of the emotional, physical and developmental handicaps that affect so many people. 

The key word there is “should.” 

When a child is lashing out, loud or overly playful out in public, we should resign ourselves to accepting that we don’t really ever know the full story. Judging a child by their size and appearance, and ascribing to them behaviors that they “should” be capable of without personally knowing that child or family is incredibly arrogant. 

Autism. Aspergers syndrome. These are just a few disorders that can effect the way a child behaves while out in public, and you may never know someone has them just by looking at them. 

If a child is lashing out or over reacting around you, be the person willing to walk over to the parents to see if you can actually do something to help them. Be the person who teaches their children what it really means to love their neighbors and to never be afraid of or nervous about loving others. Be the friendly smile to exhausted parent or the stressed child in the grocery store check out line. 

All we need is love. The Beatles got it. Now we should, too.

6.) Don’t dispense “advice”.

Don’t nitpick. Don’t make snarky comments. Don’t tell a parent how to parent. ESPECIALLY if you are not a parent (I cannot stress this fact enough. If you do not want a Starbucks drink dumped over your head, just don’t do it.)

I know that existing around children can be tricky. Here is my personal motto: if a child in my bubble may potentially hurt themselves or someone else, or destroy something, I calmly quell the issue as best as I can.

Even still, it isn’t my place to berate their parent. I have had a child teeter off while in the store, if only for a bit. I have had a child break glass in a store. It wasn’t because I wasn’t being careful. It wasn’t because I left them unattended while I got crunk. These things happened because the sky is blue, and that’s the way it always will be.

Do you know what made some of those moments all the worse for me? People cutting glances at me or making comments to me. 

You know what I wanted to say to them? Thanks for nothing. 

I can assure you, my idea of a good time is not chasing after my disobedient child in a grocery store. I can assure someone that bad things sometimes happen when I’m in public no matter what I do, and that I also don’t want them to happen as much the next person.

Condescending advice is literally good for nothing. It is the currency of the prideful and self-righteousness. Can you tell now how much parents do not like biting comments from strangers??

Someone helping me clean up while I am trying to put a grocery store shelf back together? Someone being honest about the fact that they too have been humiliated in public when with their children? That says something.

Parenting is hard. Parenting is far from always being pleasant. But, in those moments, you know the ones I’m talking about, a parent has to parent anyway. They take their licks, earn their parenting bruises, deal and move on.

You choose to parent even when it’s you that has to be paged to the front of the store because the manager found your child wandering down the cereal aisle.

We hold our head high as we are doing the best that we can. 

And the best comeback to any unwanted advice or unwanted attention from any of these scenarios: if you think you can do a better job, you can start right now

Amazing how that usually works. 


31 thoughts on “6 Things to remember when you see an unruly child in public

  1. Less to More says:

    That cereal aisle picture is crazy … at least it’s just cereal boxes. That’s not so bad to clean up. This was a good reminder to check our thoughts and our looks when we see a child’s meltdown. One of my kids just had one recently at a farmer’s market. To deal with the problem, I try to focus my attention on my child, and not all the piercing looks from passers-by. But that’s not always easy.


    • Nancan says:

      I understand when kids “have a meltdown” (although seeing this in public used to be quite rare). I like kids and don’t mind toddlers peeking over the restaurant booth. What is intolerable is when parents ignore (or are amused by) their children running along table tops and jumping from booth to booth, tearing apart menus, spilling condiments, etc. This is a health and safety issue for all concerned. The youngest need to be under supervision, and the 4 to 7 year olds need to be taught how to behave. No running, climbing, shrieking, chasing, throwing, kicking chair backs, etc. Of course, the parents would probably sue the restaurant if their kids got hurt leaping from table to table.


  2. Sasha says:

    Great post! I have definitely been “that parent” before! The cereal photo cracked me up!! I think I will save this to my phone so the next time I feel overwhelmed with two toddlers at the grocery store I will simply look at this and realize it could be much worse! 🙂 😉


    • ashleylecompte says:

      Thank goodness, that was not my photo!! Haha! I found it online but had to share it. But yes, that’s a good idea. Make it a screensaver for your phone so that the next time, when things don’t go so hot, you won’t feel quite so bad. 🙂


  3. andthreetogo says:

    Number 4 is one off biggest issues with living in the States. Every other country we have visited in the last year and a half ( 11 different countries!) have all loved that we bring our daughter with us everywhere. I mean we don’t go to clubs with her or anything inappropriate. But I thoroughly dislike the way I get evil stares for taking my child to a restaurant, or even more for taking her on a plane. The only place that I have ever encountered such dislike for children’s presence was in the USA. It makes me sad. And I wish I could fix it… but how!?
    In all the other countries we have visited and lived in,
    Our daughter has been welcomed and entertained even. They encourage families to be together. I love it.
    Okay, I am off my soap box now… Sorry :-/


    • ashleylecompte says:

      I know what you mean. It’s an epidemic. At least, I personally believe so. Nobody has time for even the thought that a child MIGHT disrupt THEIR day. It’s a “me” mentality. One that I have been very guilty of in the past, if I’m being honest. I guess the best thing that we can do is to just live our lives and take our kiddos with us where we need to go. To heck with the naysayers!! CHARRRRRGE! Haha!


  4. melissajane01 says:

    People are becoming less tolerant. I sometimes wonder if it has something to do with fewer people deciding to have children. I have much more compassion for the parent trying to deal with a child having a meltdown than I probably used to have, before having children.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      I really do think that people having fewer children, coupled with an an attitude from most people that don’t want to even tolerate children – they’re all intertwined together. I don’t necessarily think that they are mutually exclusive, but it’s certainly telling.

      And I know what you mean. I definitely have compassion for someone trying to do the best that they can with whatever life or their children throw at them.


  5. Katie Chiavarone says:

    This is such a great reminder, especially not knowing the whole story. When I’m quick to snap at my kids and people give me looks I want to say “you have no clue what is was like getting out of the house to come here!”


  6. shelahmoss says:

    Thanks for sharing this. It is a great reminder to have compassion for others. I work with families who have children with special needs and many of them cringe when they need to go shopping with the kids.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      I could not even imagine. Parents to special needs children are just incredible. Having children is trying enough, having one that might require more attention, more assistance – phew. There is so much that we can learn from them.


  7. Mommy A to Z says:

    Great post! I love your point about adults being as poorly behaved as kids (or worse) at times. I’d rather be stuck behind a chatty toddler on a grocery line than some 25-year-old guy recounting his latest romantic conquest on his cell phone (true story, and yuck). Good points!


    • ashleylecompte says:

      Yuck yuck yuck!!! to your experience! Not something I would want to hear!!

      And it’s true. I’m sure that I have succeeded in acting like a bigger jerk than a kid ever could when I’m out in public. We are all guilty of it, how often we tend to overlook that fact, right?


  8. Leslie Kendall Dye says:

    This is lovely and so right on. We have all been there and then we get stopped short with a moment of annoyance at some other kid crying. And then we laugh at ourselves because, um, that happened to us yesterday. And we already forgot. Because we are tired. because we live in a society that does not support people who care for kids all day, we are segregated and made to feel that we should hide, which in turn makes us too quick to run in shame or discipline a child who really just needs a hug!


    • ashleylecompte says:

      I know what you mean! Especially about the part where you said that sometimes, worrying about what others think or being embarassed about our kids just being kids, we can even tend to over discipline instead of showing our children compassion, like what we normally may do at home.

      There is another great article out there right now by Matt Walsh. I know that he is a polarizing writer, but one of his latest posts was about how he is no longer going to be afraid when spending his time out of the house with his children, worried that they are going to have a meltdown. And it was a great read as well.



  9. threeboysandamom says:

    Great post and all so true. We’ve all been that parent, and if we haven’t, we will soon… but I have…many times! I try to remember we are all doing our best and like you said, we never know what’s happening behind the scenes. I try to just carry on ans not worry about anyone else’s tantrums or anyone else’s opinions of ours. Just get in and get it done haha!


  10. Jason says:

    Great article Ashley!! Really hit the nail on the head!! I was just thinking about this yesterday. How, as parents, we’re handed a HUGE responsibility. Here is a life, entirely yours to mold in whatever way you see fit. And you think to yourself, ‘Wait, what? DO YOU EVEN KNOW ME?? What person in their right mind would allow me that kind of responsibility?! I’ll ruin a pot because I forgot I left water boiling it. I SCREW UP BOILING WATER. And you’re letting me a raise a child??’

    …sorry, went off on a tangent there. Anyway, the point is, it can be really stressful, so we try to figure out the RIGHT things to do. But we don’t know. I mean, how can we?? We can read books, articles, do it the way Mom did it, but still, I mean, maybe we shouldn’t have yelled that time or maybe we should be letting her stretch her limits more than we are. She shouldn’t be a bubble child! Or wait, maybe too much? Maybe we’re letting her stretch too much! She’s going to fall and bust her head!

    The bottom line is we’re all trying to do the best we can. We all WANT our children to do well. I mean, it’d really nonsensical to want our children to fail. So we subconsciously invest in the decisions we make. We commit to them. And when we see others doing something else we judge. It’s in the nature of our own subconscious fear that maybe we’re also screwing something up. We have to boost ourselves up and sadly, that frequently means mentally stepping on others.

    Your article is a great reminder that we should all stop and check ourselves before we judge. They’re doing the best they know how to do. And even if you’re positive you know better, giving unsolicited advice is not the way to fix it. These parents have had to, out of necessity, committed to their parenting methods. And your peanut gallery advice won’t suddenly win them to your cause. You’ve been there, in one way or another. Be supportive in whatever way you can. Cause you’ll be there again in no time at all, and maybe it’ll get paid forward.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      Great point about judging others because maybe, JUST MAYBE, they’re doing something better or more right than we are? I totally think that we sometimes put others down to justify what we are doing as a parent. We’d never co-sleep, so whoever does that must be crazy. When really, no, some people WANT to co sleep and simply think that’s the better option out there.

      And I know what you mean. I don’t know how I have kept two children thriving, let alone alive when I drop and spill things all. of. the time. But somehow, I’m doing it.

      And so are you! And you’re doing a great job!!


  11. Bronwyn Joy @ Journeys Of The Fabulist says:

    All very good points.

    And the other thing I’d add to the “you don’t know the full story” one is that the child you’re criticising may actually be doing very well that day.

    People routinely peg my children at two years older than their actual age (today someone guessed my 3yo was five). If you’re going to hold a 3yo to 5yo standards, of course you’ll be disappointed. If you’re going to hold a kid with autism or ADHD or sensory processing disorder or maybe a normal kid who just has a weakness when it comes to shopping trips but is actually doing much better than usual today to some other standard, then you are just being unreasonable, and it’s not actually anybody else’s job to address that.

    I once had a woman judge a crying child to me from across the supermarket (she hadn’t even clapped eyes on the family in question) and I just had to stare at her with my mouth open until someone standing nearby politely broke the awkwardness by asking if I could retrieve something from a high shelf. Not sure why this woman thought I’d be supportive of her judgement.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      You make even more great points about why we shouldn’t quickly judge a book by its cover or a child by their behavior. My son, too, is larger for his age. People may think he is a wee bit older than he is, therefore they have set expectations about how he should be acting. Or children who struggle with developmental or physical ailments.

      So very, very true and very wise for you to point out. Thank you so much for commenting!


  12. pennypinchingpeach says:

    Great article! I have often felt judged trying to corral my VERY high energy daughter who- as you mentioned- loves to test boundaries when we are out in public even more so than at home. Those who expressed empathy, or just smiled or tried to distract her, stick in my mind and can totally turn a rotten day around. Sometimes the battle I’m fighting in the grocery store has been going on for dayyyyyssssss, I’m often alone for a couple of days at a time with my small children and I am at the edge of a nervous breakdown from that & life in general. I’m not beating my child, but I may snarl at her after the 10 millionth time dealing with it and a truckload of embarrassment.

    As a parent, I am so glad that my response to kiddos acting up in public was usually something like making faces at them, or saying something empathetic to the embarrassed parent of an obviously tired and fussy toddler (i.e. “It’s rough to shop who you just wanna sleep, huh?). I’d feel like a jerk now walking in their shoes.

    This culture is really less and less child friendly. It’s very sad.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      Thank you so much for commenting. And yes, days not even getting out of the house, trapped with kiddos and THEN trying to take them out into public? Going to the grocery store is hard enough, without them being hungry, needing a nap or just plain wanting to be difficult that day. It is most definitely an obstacle and should be an olympic sport!


  13. Sami says:

    You make some good points but I think what some people are missing is the fact that when parents don’t try to discipline , and many allow their kids to run rampant over others trying to shop or eat an expensive meal in peace, it’s very frustrating to be on the receiving end.

    Of course children are going to act up and of course they are going to have tantrums, but it’s what the parents do and how they handle it that’s mostly judged. I see more and more children running around stores and restaurants and the parents are oblivious.

    Children need to be taught responsibility for their actions and consideration for others went out in public. This is how it was done when I was a child.

    Parents should want to do this so that when their child is 10 years old they aren’t still acting like they did when they were 3 years old. Perhaps if this was done more, adults wouldn’t be so narcissistic these days and all about themselves. And too many have children they can’t handle and yet they keep having more. I don’t see how this makes any sense at all to say I have 5 kids and yes, they are out of control but I’m a tired parent and frustrated therefore it is the Public’ problem, so just tolerate and deal with it?

    We all have to get along and yes life is messy but we also need to have a measure of reeling it in so others around us are also comfortable. A little effort does go a long way.


    • ashleylecompte says:

      I think I see where you are coming from.

      My post namely addressed the common, sometimes daily occurrences that come when children simply act like children. In my experience, a lot of the time, people see a brief moment of your day, and assume that because your child is griping or losing it in the checkout lane at the grocery store, that you must be an inactive or passive parent, or that your child must be out of control. Which simply isn’t true. Also, like you mentioned. We now live in a much more selfish generation. I don’t think it hurts to remind people that yes, on public transportation, an airplane or in the supermarket, you are going to encounter people that might downright annoy you. But such is the social contract between adults when you go out in public. I am not someone who encourages parents to make excuses that enable them to be parents who don’t actively parent and guide their children. I also see your point about how parenting has changed, but I believe that we have shifted more away from a generation where children were to be seen and not heard to a generation where we want to allow children to be children. I agree that this is done to a fault at times and that we have given too much leeway for children to act out, or assumed for some reason that they are incapable of learning boundaries. There, I will agree with you. . But I also don’t ever want to be that parent who assumes the worst in another parent just because I’m seeing their child act out. I want to give most adults I meet the benefit of the doubt that they are each trying their best, and let grace cover the rest because we never truly know what is going on in another person’s life.

      Thank you for reading and thank you for your thoughtful comment.


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