Preparing Yourself for Public Toddler Outings: Small Children in Big People Places


This post follows a similar thread as my last one about toddler manners, except here we focus on public toddler outings and what to expect. (You can see how these might be related, right?) If you’ve read any of my posts then you know by now that I’m a mom who thinks. A lot. I think about whether I’m doing the right thing, setting the right expectations- or realistic ones anyway- for my son. And so while in my last post I wondered if I was jumping the gun on teaching my son manners, I often also wonder if I’m pushing the envelope on bringing my small person to big people places. Think church, the grocery store, and restaurants.

Is my son ready for public toddler outings? Am I ready for this?

I find myself preparing for these public toddler outings as if I were setting off to climb Everest, and then wondering if I’m 1) exposing him too soon to some of these experiences and settings and 2) what kind of toddler behavior I might get (and that others might witness.)

There’s one part of me that is like,

Hey, remember that time your pediatrician told you that you should set yourself up for ‘wins?’ Maybe that doesn’t mean bringing him to the library where he’ll drag every book off the shelf because he can’t help himself.

Then there’s the counter-argument, which sounds like,

Suck it up. You can’t keep him -or you- in a bubble forever. You can’t teach if there aren’t any teachable moments.

(Being a mom means having this ‘for’ and ‘against’ dialogue constantly. At least for me.)

Like most things, momming being no exception, there is no one-size fits all approach. So each time I consider a public toddler outing, I weigh the pros and the cons. I ask myself umpteen questions: What hour is ‘said’ activity going to take place and does that interfere with a snack, meal, nap, or regular bowel movement? (Hey, I don’t know your kids. Maybe they’re that regular.) What’s happening later in the day? Will he have enough energy for both activities? Will I? Will food be served, or do I need to pack my own? Will there be things he can break? How quiet will he have to be or how much sitting will he have to do? I think about the time of day we are going. I think about which places I go and their tolerance for children. I think about how long our errand might take. Where we’ll sit, stand, or be most comfortable (for the fastest escape possible if needed).

In answering these questions and knowing my child, I attempt to predict best-case and worst-case scenarios for the potential outcomes for all public toddler outings. And then decide if I’ll brave it.

I try to be realistic and consider the circumstances of the situation (as the aforementioned questions suggest), his developmental stage, his temperament, and, not least of all, my own patience. Of course, there is one thing that is impossible to predict – not that I would have any control over it anyway – other people’s behaviors, reactions, or judgments. (And you know how I feel about other people’s judgments.) Sometimes adults are worse than children, really. Needless to say, I try not to set myself up for failure (as dear Dr. Joe once told me). But I also try not to live in a bubble. My son and I go on public outings. We go to church. We go to the grocery store. We go to the library. We go to the bookstore. We go to the playground, the fitness center, the local pool, the bowling alley and arcade, and sometimes, we even go out to eat. I could be ambitious or crazy; the jury is still out on that one.

church pews, bibles

For these occasions, I pack what I call a ‘God Help Me Bag’ which is a prayer and a survival kit wrapped into one. It’s an attempt at setting myself up for success for public toddler outings when my son’s behavior is in question. In this bag of tricks are things to try to occupy him (usually toys; quiet ones) should they be necessary. And since people at church probably don’t want him to poke them while they pray and be asking, “What’s that?!” as loud as possible during the quietest part of mass, these things are often most needed for going to church. I also pack water, snacks, books, extra clothing, spare diapers and wipes, and pretty soon I’ll be adding a towel to the list. (Why? Because recently at a farmer’s market he discovered a fountain. He was faster than I was. Enough said.)

Backpack on seat

Don’t misunderstand me. I plan and I prepare but let’s be real. Sometimes public toddler outings are just impossible and horrible; it just doesn’t matter what you do or how you prepare.

You can have the perfect God Help Me Bag and all of your patience in check and these adventures can still end in disaster. (Think epic meltdowns, tantrums, fits of little-person rage). Failure and tantrum-induced judgment can make you feel like you really never want to try that again until they’re school-aged and can act civilized. At the very least, you don’t want to go back there until all of the witnesses have completely forgotten who you are and that one time…(fill in the blank. For me, it’s, “That woman let her son practically swim in the fountain.”)

Child in fountain

Toddler behavior can be challenging to cope with when its extreme and everyone is watching. So, I get it. Sometimes your expectations for public toddler outings have to shift. Go through the same torture at the same place enough times and your new expectation will be that you cannot go there anymore until this changes. And maybe the “this” is your child getting older and understanding more. But for me, I don’t understand how else children can learn how to behave in certain settings or scenarios if we don’t push ourselves and them? If we don’t expose them to different things? If we don’t bring them out? Maybe I’m selfish. I want to go out and do things with my son. I don’t want to stay at home all the time. So, I force us to get out. I don’t care what people think. At least not enough to stay inside with the door locked. (Truly, next time we head to the farmer’s market, I’ll pack spare clothes for both of us. Than when mischief is over, we’ll swap clothes and no one will even know it was us in the fountain.)

Tell me a story a public outing that went well or ended poorly. Come on, don’t be shy.


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