Screaming kids have a way of destroying patience. It’s even worse in public when parents have to contend with judgmental looks from the people around them. Eventually, a parent may want to clap their hand over the kid’s mouth to make them quiet. Some parents are aghast at this. Some parents are glad someone finally did something. But cover a kid’s mouth may be teaching lessons that are going to complicate parenting later on, according to Dr. Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, a board-certified behavior analyst.
“First, it sends the message that the child is incapable of quieting down on their own and requires adult intervention,” says Marsh. “Second, it sends a message that it is okay for bigger, stronger people to physically enforce their will on younger, smaller people. Third, children imitate and learn from observing their parents’ behavior.”
This last point is particularly chilling. March encourages parents to consider the consequences of a child mimicking clasping a hand over another child’s mouth. The behavior could be at least problematic in preschool. But it could be potentially harmful to a baby sibling, for instance.
So, clapping a hand over the kid’s pie hole sets a bad precedent. How, then, should parents quiet down a loud kid? Marsh suggests four steps, bearing the somewhat-unwieldy name of the Four Ss: Stop, Squat, Shhh, and Sing.
Four Step to Quieting Down a Noisy Kid
- STOP: Parents should stop what they’re doing and pay attention to their child. Are they excited? Upset? Hungry? In pain?
- SQUAT: When parents get down to their child’s level and look them in the eye, it lets the kid feel appreciated and helps the parents assess the situation. It might be an easy fix.
- SHHH: Parents need to smile, slow down and lower their voice, even to whisper. It not only models behavior for the child, but they may quiet down just so they can hear what is said.
- SING: if they are inconsolable, parents can try singing quietly. A familiar song is soothing on a visceral level.
The Four S’s can be applied anywhere, but if a parent can remove the child from a stressful situation, they should do it. “Leave the movie or church service or party and just walk around calmly holding your child while they calm down,” advises Marsh. “If you can’t leave, such as on an airplane, hold your child in a comforting position with your mouth near their ear and whisper-sing, slowly and calmly, while moving in whatever way they find comforting. They need to feel loved and comforted, not squashed or smooshed. The other people on the airplane have heard a child cry before, and they will survive.”
A parent’s first obligation is to their child, after all, and not to the sensitivities of the strangers around them. Some may think this spoils a child, but there’s a vast gulf between indulging a kid’s every whim and providing the basic empathy of a parent. A child who trusts their parents is more likely to calm down, in any case.
But even though parents know this rationally, there are still moments when they are pushed to their limits. If they’ve covered their child’s mouth and regret it, the best thing they can do, according to Marsh, is to tell the truth. Pretending it didn’t happen leaves the child to process it by themselves.
“When everyone is calm and some time has passed, tell your child that you remember putting your hand over their mouth when they were too noisy and it was important to be quiet,” suggests Marsh. “Then tell them that you don’t like doing that, and they probably don’t like it either. You’d rather find a different way if they need help quieting down. If they’re old enough, ask them what they think will help.”
Once parent and child have thought of a way to help the kid manage their behavior, they should practice it. The more they practice when things are calm, the more familiar it will feel when things aren’t. Whatever happens, parents need to approach their role with charity and kindness – for their children, and themselves.
“It’s hard to be out in public when your child’s having a meltdown. You might worry that others are judging you,” says Marsh. “But remember, the meltdown is happening to your child, not to you. It’s usually out of their control, and they’re not doing it on purpose to ruin your outing.”