Perfect Parenting Observed in a Busy Waiting Room

Taking a moment to reflect on stellar parenting.

Posted Dec 03, 2019

This post is inspired by and in response to Dr. Roni Beth Tower's blog post "Perfect Parenting Observed at a Busy Supermarket." She broke down a small but meaningful interaction she had with a mother at a busy grocery store in the midst of the Thanksgiving rush. I couldn't help but feel encouraged as I read about her experience. So much of clinical work with kids is training parents what to do and what not to do, it's nice to take a moment and reflect on what we see going right instead of going wrong.

As part of the training in my doctoral program, I work at a mental health service provider a few days per week. When it comes to providing services for kids, the most desired appointments are between 3:00 p.m. and closing time, for obvious reasons. As a result, most clinicians who see clients at this facility have been working for about six hours before the real rush comes. Without my afternoon coffee, I'd be nowhere as energetic and engaged for my 5 p.m. appointment as I am for my 10 a.m. It was a long day and I was eager to wrap up.

Upon calling my client's name, I took a deep breath as I saw she had three young children with her. I've had my office torn apart before and my expectations for the kids' behavior was low. Plus, she had been enduring the stressful environment of a busy waiting room with kids in tow. Here are the three impressive things she did that make her deserving of a blog post!

1. She immediately laid out concise, age-appropriate expectations for her children.   

Before I began to interview her and get a sense of what brought her in, she respectfully asked me to pause and said to her kids:

"Okay, I'm going to talk to this man and you're going to sit and play with his blocks on the floor. Do you understand?"

She waited until she got confirmation from each child and then returned her attention back to me.

With an instruction that was straightforward enough for the toddler to understand, she had already set an expectation for behavior. Another strength of her command was that she avoided making a "don't list." Whereas some parents would enter a new environment and instruct their children on all the things they're not allowed to do, this mom simplified it by telling them exactly what they could do. Still, I was uncertain she would hold her kids to that expectation—so few parents do. But she did!

2. When her children began to misbehave, she calmly redirected them back to the expectation she had laid out ahead of time.

Turn to any page of a parenting book. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Of course, it's exhausting—especially with multiple kids. But this mom repeatedly and respectfully redirected her children back towards the behavioral expectation she laid out ahead of time. Her calmness during this time was a valuable model of appropriate interpersonal behavior for her children to follow.

When one child decided it was time for him to explore my file cabinet, mom called his name, asked him firmly but politely to come see her, held him gently by the shoulders to maintain his attention and said:

"Benjamin, you are not allowed to touch nice man's things. You may play with the blocks on the floor or sit on my lap and wait until we're done."

Wow. She had made sure to gain her child's attention, explained the rule he had broken, reminded him of her expectation, and provided him with limited autonomy (freedom to make a choice). At this point, I was ready to get out my pen and notepad. She was doing it right! But here's what really shocked me.

3. She paid as much attention to good behavior as she did to poor behavior.

Admittedly, I don't have nearly the depth of experience as many of the other writers on Psychology Today. But for what's it worth, in all my interactions with parents, I have never seen a parent in my office whose praise to criticism ratio is greater than 1:1.

This mom paused our conversation every few minutes and turned to her children;

"Benjamin, I like the tower you're building, thank you for being quiet. Diego, thank you for sitting still and eating your snack neatly. Ruby, you're doing such a good job helping your older brother."

For the savvy readers out there eyeballing this post and thinking, "Well, she had probably received PCIT training before." No! I know, I was shocked too. The all-too-common rut parents of children fall into is that they pay equal, if not more, attention to undesirable child behavior than desirable child behavior. Over time, desirable child behavior is so rare, it doesn't elicit encouragement from the parent.

Somehow, this woman knew that encouraging her children's good behavior was as, if not more, important than discouraging their misbehavior. And just like the mom in Dr. Tower's post, she remained calm, stayed flexible and willing to shift her attention when necessary, and modeled respectful, appropriate behavior.

It's heartwarming to know these kids are in such good hands. Here's to parents who work hard to set limits, enforce expectations, and praise good behavior. And here's to more articles pointing out these parents' great work!