Life Lessons in the Real World

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Are You a Misbehaving Parent?

discipline.jpgIf you want to observe bad parenting in action, start spending time in family restaurants.

I do my share of eating out, and I believe that family restaurants are hands-down the best place to watch parents making fools of themselves in public, not that I enjoy the spectacle, mind you.

Incident #1: The Loudmouth Dad

Last night, my wife and I were eating at a family restaurant. A father and his two small children were sitting in the booth across from us. We weren’t trying to eavesdrop, but we couldn’t help but hear the ugly things this father was saying to his youngest son, who might have been 8 years old, at most.

The young boy was having a hard time picking something out from the menu, so the father barked, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you ever do anything right?”

The father clearly favored one son over the other, which was obvious because he was very polite to one boy, and constantly screaming at the other, despite the fact that both boys seemed to be well behaved.

Everyone in the place was staring at the father, wondering what his problem was. But most of us had the luxury of quickly forgetting about this guy’s antics once we left the restaurant; there was no escape for those kids.

Incident #2: The Mother Who Treats Her Baby like an Adult

Of course, that was rather tame compared to the incident my wife and I observed several years ago. A couple had brought their very young daughter, who might have been 18 months old, to a restaurant and they couldn’t seem to figure out why the little girl was acting like a little girl and not an adult. The little girl was making gurgling noises, and the embarrassed mother yelled, “I wish you wouldn’t behave this way! You need to learn the consequences of your actions!”

She was a baby, for Pete’s sake. She had no idea what her mother was telling her.

Mom’s behavior might have been excusable if it had only been a stray comment or two, but this mother went on to berate her baby girl, using very adult language, for over a half hour.

Incident #3: We’re Special and You’re Not

And last year at another restaurant, I overheard a family telling their youngest kid that he didn’t deserve to eat with the rest of the family. The whole clan was sitting at the table, enjoying their food, while this 9-year-old sipped sadly on a cup of water.

It’s unclear to me whether this kid was the perennial outcast or if he was being punished for something, but I could see no earthly reason for the father to be so damned rude to him. At one point, the boy asked his father if he could get a re-fill of water, and the father yelled, “Go get it yourself!” and then went back to conversing politely with his wife and older son.

Mystery of the Misbehaving Parent

I’ve got a daughter, so I understand the challenges of parenting in a social situation. And we all know that some parents have the exact opposite problem – instead of being rude to their children (which is bad enough), they allow them to climb all over the place and harass other patrons.

But my personal theory is that some parents are so paranoid that their kids are going to bother someone else that they take their discipline to illogical extremes. And in other cases, the restaurant is like a window into a family’s dysfunction, allowing (or should I say forcing) us to observe their obnoxious behavior.

Part of me wants to take these parents aside and say, “Be nice to your children. Treat them like human beings. Treat them with love and respect. Handle them in an age appropriate way.” And I also want to say, “Discipline should be born out of love, not hate. You don’t have to be rude and obnoxious to your children in order to discipline them.”

For some reason, we think of physical abuse as being more devastating than emotional abuse, maybe because of its overtly shocking nature. For example, one time, my wife and I were going for a jog and we saw a crazed 300 pound mother beating her child over the head with a heavy piece of wood and screaming at him like she was going to kill him. That was abuse. We called the cops. That stuff wasn’t funny.

But emotional abuse can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse. And as parents, we can do better.

We spend a lot of time on this site talking about happiness. And when I see parents acting this way, it strikes me that so much unhappiness starts with our families. Yes, children do need discipline to help them reach their potential and so they can learn to lead happy, rewarding lives.

But children don’t need to be belittled and degraded, in public or otherwise.


19 Responses to “Are You a Misbehaving Parent?”

  • TIm Graham says:

    Hi John, I think it *is* abuse. A kid treated that way consistently over time will have real problems. I don’t think it is that different to hitting them with a lump of wood to be honest – it just takes longer for the wounds to show up.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Oh, I agree with you, Tim. In fact, emotional abuse can often be far worse than the physical, and I was reasonably sure someone was going to say as much, and I’m glad someone did.

    My wording was an attempt to recognize that I had no way of knowing whether or not the kids were treated this way “consistently over time,” to use your phrasing. But one time is bad enough, isn’t it?

    Right after posting this last night, I was thinking about updating the article with a bit about emotional abuse, but whenever I update my articles after posting it can really wreak havoc with some feed readers. But in light of our discussion here, I’ve gone back and added a couple of sentences.

  • Jason says:

    That kind of parenting makes me sad… I’ve known a lot of the “victims” of it. People who still turned out pretty well, despite the problems, but had issues that they struggled with for years (and are still struggling with for some), things that they hated about themselves that I, seeing it from the outside, could easily trace back to how I know their parents treated them.

    As for parent #2, kids do need to know the consequences of their behavior, but mostly they learn by you showing them, anyway, even if they are older… telling them seldom does any good, other than to let you warn them of those consequences. And yelling at anyone very seldom does either you or them any long term good.

    For all three parents… your kids deserve better.

  • Jen says:

    “And I also want to say, ‘Discipline should be born out of love, not hate.'”


    It is the hardest job in the world, yet the difficulty and responsibility, are often most overlooked. Being a parent (a good parent) takes everything you’ve ever learned, and unlearning half of it.

    Parents naturally tend to go one of two ways. The way that th1eir parents raised them, or the exact opposite. I’ve heard many times “My parents did it, and I turned out ok.” or “I’ll never be like my mother.” Either way, they naturally tend to go to extremes. It is only by taking a second, calming down, and rationally approaching the situation with love (I know, slight contradiction there) that parents can make the right choices.

    Emotional abuse is abuse. Plain and simple. It can damage someone for their entire lives, unless they can overcome it (usually with conselling of some kind, and a lot of reflection). Even if the person thinks they have dealt with it, it can still affect the way the person interacts with people, builds relationships, and what they look for in a mate.

    Yeah, if you couldn’t guess, I’m speaking from personal experience here. It takes a toll on so many different aspects of a person’s life.

    Just for the record, I love reading your articles.

  • Julia S. says:

    Oh, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wanted to smack the parents of a screaming child or just shake that parent and say “c’mon! he’s a BABY!”. I spent a 14 hour plane flight with two women who as far as I am concerned, had no business being parents. 1) you give your child NOTHING TO DO!! Toys? Coloring books? Games? No – nothing. 2) You get into a battle of wills with a two year old??? (One woman was determined to get four layers of clothing on her two year old on an 80 degree plane because it was cold where we were going – the child cried so hard and so long she actually started throwing up from the strain – this went on for OVER AN HOUR!!!). It horrifies me to no end! Kid won’t let you put the clothes on? Fine! She’ll ask when she gets cold! Why worry about it?

    I’ve seen other lovely people who’s children have meltdowns in public places and they (gasp!) HUG them and calm them down! It’s amazing what a hug and some quiet words can do. Oh and here’s another one. If the child is cranky and melting down and you just can’t comfort them – LEAVE!!!!!! That is what polite considerate people do – for both the child AND the people around them. Take your food home, come back to the store the next day – nothing is so important as to make your child and everyone else more miserable.

    Can you tell this is SUCH an issue with me!!! Well, it’s jealousy really – I can’t have children and it kills me to watch people abusing theirs! Even when I watch other people’s kids I have never had to raise my voice to them. Never. My nieces and nephews do crazy stuff – but as long as they don’t get hurt and they aren’t mean to one another they do just fine. Never a problem! And there is at least one meltdown a day – but never for very long! Because we hug them! And they are GREAT kids!

    In other words – discipline with love – just like you said! You get well-adjusted adults that way…

  • bonni says:

    As a survivor of significant emotional/mental abuse, I can tell you for sure it does incredible damage. It’s worse than physical abuse in, I believe, most cases (unless the physical abuse is really over the top, but usually severe physical abuse goes hand in hand with emotional abuse). I was told from a very young age that I was useless, worthless, good for nothing, a troublemaker, a problem, demanding, ungrateful, and worse. You can imagine the sort of damage to your developing personality that will do…

    I’ve had years of therapy and soul searching and healing, and eventually had to completely break all contact with my parents (who, by the way, still regard me as ungrateful, worthless, etc.), and I’ve come to a place where I know it was THEIR issue and NOT mine, but it still hurts sometimes.

    Words can hurt a lot worse than a belt. The belt hurts like hell at the time, but it goes away. “You’re so useless!” will stay with you all of your life…

  • Julia S. says:

    You know, that is the major point – I really don’t much remember the wooden spoon beatings as much as I remember being called “ugly”, and the constant pressure to not be “fat” (I was neither fat nor ugly!) My brother to this day is convinced he is “stupid” and “useless”. Being adopted didn’t help, especially when my mother would gush over how much my cousins looked like her. Oooh, that one STILL smarts!

    Funny thing is, being adopted was also my comfort – I could go to family reunions and be thankful I wasn’t genetically related to those people. My brother, who isn’t adopted, even expressed jealousy of that once!

    Even better, now that I am fat, happily married and rather liking myself, those hurtful things though not really gone, are not a part of my life now. I figured, once I was 18 I was my own person. It’s been a hard struggle, and it as worth it! I feel sorry for my miserable parents – they never found their way out of their hells. That’s really the best way to look at it.

    Oh, and it’s OKAY NOT TO TALK TO THEM!!! Best thing I ever did was to cut my mother out of my life. Sounds cold, but I haven’t had any depression since I did. I don’t tolerate abuse from strangers – I certainly don’t need to from “family”.

  • Jon Limjap says:

    Unfortunately this behavior can be seen anywhere in the world. I see similar kinds of parents here in Manila, and sometimes I have a hard time trying to keep myself from screaming at the abusive parent to stop what they’re doing.

    A few more years of such abuse and many such kids either become sociophobic and withdrawn, or sociopathic and dangerous. I am not surprised if serial killers, stalkers, or school shooters were raised this way. The kids need help, and the parents need some psychological counseling as well.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for all the great responses, everyone. I’m glad to see that this post resonates.

  • Roxanne says:

    This is an excellent post. It made me want to cry, I am sorry that the subjects in this won’t get to see it. It is very sad. How can you look in their little faces and not love them.

  • I suspect many poor parents are quite simply poor people. Courtesy is long gone. People misbehave toward other people – grown ups or children. Kids just seem to be lesser citizens because of their age and size. Easy targets for brutish parents. And when we see it happening in a public place, how many of us feel too uncomfortable to engage an ill-behaving parent? (my hand is raised) On those rare occasions I’ve said something as innocuous as “don’t be so hard on him” I incurred the wrath of the “don’t tell me how to raise my kid” parent. Then I regretted my decision to say a word – wondering if the anger now aimed at me might later be doled out on the kid I was attempting to defend.

  • Julia S. says:

    You know, that’s the freaky thing – these people treat their children like belongings, and when society (us) point out that they are mistreating them, these parents feel like they are being put upon! “Don’t tell me what to do with MY children” Well, excuse me we are all a part of society and I would appreciate not having to see other people abused – especially the defenseless!

    But how do we curtail/point out/ stop this abuse without becoming a nanny state? I know as I child I wanted desperately for someone to chew my parents out, to put a stop to their abuse, to finally get through to them that they were a pair of jerks and needed to grow up themselves. (but I’m not bitter, noooo….)

    That’s the hard thing. As long as children are perceived as belongings, not the gift and responsibility that they really are, this kind of behavior will continue. How do we change that attitude? Well, eliminating the pressures of poverty is one way, and better general education is another. But abuse happens in the well-off as well…


  • Joan M says:


    I have to chime in with a different response than the group. Although I do not like these parenting scenarios at all, have you considered that by pointing out only those undesirable examples, you are not helping?

    If what you’re looking for is more positive parenting, then it’s usually helpful to acknowledge the problem (stressed out parents who need some coaching), and model the expected behavior.

    My youngest son, now almost 19, has multiple disabilities. Living with him has taught me the best of parenting and the best for coaching. One theory is called “Positive Behavior Supports.” In a nutshell, what you do is look for what the person is doing *well* and capitalize on their strengths to help reduce the undesired behavior.

    This post may be “good writing,” in that it has a catchy title and a three-point list of handy examples. But the tone…”Misbehavirng parent” is actually no better than the examples of parents who misbehave.

    Better, would be to point out how to set your family up for success in a restuarang:
    1. If everyone’s tired, consider take out rather than a sit down. Get the order to go and chill out at home.

    2. When you hear yourself being critical, question why. Your child is innocent – did you have a bad day? What can you do to relieve yoru stress?

    3. The Family Meal is an important time for bonding, communication, and learning about social customs. Set your sites on creating a warm and inviting atmosphere when the kids are little so you can reap the benefits when they’re older – open communication.

    4. If you become too negative before you can catch yourself, do not be afraid to apologize to your child. Children will learn to respect an honest apology – particularly if it is followed by corrective action.

    There are hundreds of other, less destructive ways you could have handled this same topic. Instead, what I read was someone talking about the cycle of emotional abuse by emotionally abusing innocent people he overheard in a restaurant.

    Think about it….modeling the expected behavior is a good motto for someone so public.

  • JohnPlace says:


    I agree with your parenting suggestings, and I’m glad you shared them.

    However, we disagree with regard to your suggestion that this post constitutes an emotional abuse of its own.

    The emotional latitude with regard to communication between adults over the internet is far wider than that between parents and their minor offspring in an emotional arrangement that by nature carries lasting emotional consequences, not to mention the obvious role of parental responsibility, minor dependence, and all the rest of it.

    The question “are you a misbehaving parent?” was meant to encourage introspection, the examples intended to spur it on. The call for self-examination is not always polite, nor does it always contain the necessary steps for fixing the problem, steps which I admit remain important. The shelves at book-stores are full of helpful suggestions in this regard, and if you know someone who treats their children like this, perhaps you could consider getting them the information they need.

    The vast majority of the posts on this blog are captured as helpful how-to’s, but they won’t all be that way. In the meantime, I’m glad you shared your own helpful how-to’s so that others can benefit from them here in the comments section.

  • Joan M says:


    But as a “coach,” do you want to go down the negative reinforcement path or the positive reinforcement path?

    Yes, your tone *is* generally positive. That’s why I was surprised. I think some emotions from the holidays are peeking through.

    As a parent, I tried really hard not to set my kids up to fail. Meaning, we never shopped when they were tired, we planned ahead for meals so the experience was a good one, and we did not over schedule our kids to the point of melt downs.

    Parenting is all about setting your kids up for success. And when you hear negative comments, often people are parroting what they learned as children rather than being purposeful about how they themselves would like to parent.

    Does “scolding” parents, or children, work to change behavior? Rarely.

    That’s all I’m saying, John. No child deserves to be put down constantly. Especially children.

    It was just a one coach to another comment. Slamming parents who haven’t figured out how to balance life or that they are responsible for the chaos that leads them to negativity just isn’t what I consider constructive. I think the same goal can be accomplished without stooping to the level of what you’re complaining about. That’s all I was trying to say – and as a someone who wants to promote positive lifestyles and all that, I thought it was a fair call.

    Sorry to offend you.


  • JohnPlace says:

    Joan, not all “calls to action” are polite. Some of the most profound wake-up calls that I’ve experienced in my own life were the result of someone taking a hard line with me. And speaking from one adult to another (parent to parent), I thought this was fair.

    There are several talking points in your response that I think we’d need a long conversation over a polite dinner to sort through, so I’m content to agree to disagree, if that’s alright with you. :-)

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  • Sujay Rao Mandavilli says:

    I’m from India. You’re absolutely right, John. I have a very good friend whom I worked with for several years. He was very polite and well-mannered. He was also responsible and had shouldered a lot of resposibility. He was also extremely hard-working and intelligent. He was even a role model for others to follow. I once casually (and curiously) asked him if he had ever been scolded as a child. Pat came the reply, “never”. This had me thinking. I thought long and hard. This has very deeply affected my behavior as a parent. Kids do stupid things, sometimes. Things can be explained to them politely. We may be short-tempered and kids can be frustrating. But keep this to the minimum. I strongly believe humans are more or less the same. It is how you mould them that counts.

  • Very good article. I think the fundamental part of acquiring along with youngsters is talking to them the appropriate way.

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