What should parents do about a noisy child disturbing others in public?

Although there’s no single right answer, here are some guidelines parents might consider when out with their youngsters.

Some time ago, I watched a riveting Flamenco performance. It was magnificent. Two rows behind me, a 6-year-old, sitting on his dad’s lap, started to have a loud, spirited conversation with his father. I turned around and gave his dad a pointed look. His father didn’t flinch. A few minutes later, his volume increasing, my wife turned and asked him to be quiet with a sharp tone. She was getting annoyed. A woman nearby hissed: “He’s just a kid!” But what about all the adults trying to enjoy the show? Didn’t we have the right to enjoy a performance we had paid for?

Of course, it wasn’t the youngster’s fault. He was being a child — but what about his father? Isn’t he responsible for ensuring that his child doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of others? At what point does a parent take his child out of the auditorium?

How often have you been at a restaurant when a young child was disturbing other diners? I have gone to many performances where young children had trouble sitting still but didn’t interfere with the performance. Their parents knew that their kids could handle the length of the show without making noise, even if it was a challenge for them. But other times, I’ve witnessed children be disruptive.

The important question is: What are parents’ responsibilities to the larger community and what rights do children have?

These issues are not always black and white. Clearly, a crying child on an airplane cannot be escorted off. I always feel sorry for the poor parents trying to soothe a screaming toddler disturbing everyone within ten rows. I have seen single parents handling three young children on long-haul flights, and I have compassion for them and try to give a helping hand when I can.

Indeed, as parents of young children, we’re naturally partial to their needs. We’re used to their voices, screams and cries. We’re sympathetic to the challenges of a 6-year-old trying to sit still. Sometimes, we’re torn between our needs — like finishing a meal at a restaurant! — lack of available babysitters or money to pay them, our child’s struggles and our concern for the comfort of others. It may be easy to convince ourselves that our seatmates should be more tolerant.

My youngest daughter was a spirited child who thought that a restaurant meal should last four minutes. Then, she was bored and restless. She wasn’t shy about letting us know when she was done. My wife and I spent many restaurant meals eating in shifts while the other parent hung out in the parking lot with our little one. I understood the allure of “fast food.” My older daughter could sit through a two-hour play in rapt attention — they were just different kids.

With the understanding that cultural norms vary and that every situation is different, here are some possible guidelines for parents.

Be realistic. Hope springs eternal. Maybe your 2-year-old will be able to handle a dinner out with the whole family. That’s a nice idea, but how likely is that? Trying to get a child to behave in a nice restaurant may be more disruptive to other diners than going to a family-style restaurant filled with children.

Be prepared and plan ahead. Don’t expect to have a long sit-down meal with a toddler on hand. You may choose to eat in shifts like my wife and I, but discuss how to handle these issues well before walking into the restaurant. If your child is tired and cranky, perhaps changing plans and eating at home is a good idea. Be flexible.

Be considerate. Even at an early age, it’s important to model considerate, polite and community-minded behavior to our children. It’s not okay to disturb others. This is more important than going to a performance or going out to eat. We want our kids to grow up to be considerate adults.

As adults, we also need to keep in mind that children are our future. Gone are the days of children being seen and not heard — with both adults working, time together may be in short supply. So, while parents have responsibilities for their children, it may also do us good to adjust our expectations and allow for giggles, wiggles, whispers and even cries when we are in public. By focusing on our own reactions instead of our expectations for the behavior of others’ children, we will enjoy our experiences so much more.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at Optum Care Washington, formerly The Everett Clinic.

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