Dear Tzippora,

My children embarrass me in public. They get very wild and rowdy, and there is nothing I can do to calm them down. I get so humiliated. People must think I am such a bad parent. I am afraid to accept invitations to people's houses because I am afraid of how my children will act while we are there. Sometimes I am even afraid to take them to the playground, although I know they would benefit from getting out a bit. Please help me.


Dear Embarrassed,

It sounds like there are two issues here. Your personal reaction to your children's behavior, and dealing with the behavior.

(First though, I'd like to point out that it is difficult to tell from your letter whether your children's antics are particularly wild and unruly, or whether they are merely high strung and easily excited, but otherwise normally rambunctious children. It is important to find out how your children act when you are not around, for instance in school, or in the presence of another adult. Is their behavior better on these occasions than it is when you are present, or is their behavior unacceptable in the presence of other adults as well? Perhaps you should find out how other adults who are accustomed to being around children view your children's behavior while you are with them? Your expectations might be too high, or might be unreasonable for your children's developmental stage.)

It is clear that your reaction to their antics is causing you considerable pain, shame, and social isolation. Your assumption is that, as their parent, you should be able to control their behavior and prevent them from acting out. This is a fallacy.

Parents do not have absolute control over their children's behavior. As children grow, they become, or should become, increasingly accountable for their own behavior. Our job as parents is to teach them what desirable behavior is, and try to motivate them to act properly.

At this stage, your children are works in progress, and a work in progress is never as polished as a finished product. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

As for controlling their behavior – to the best of our abilities – we need to teach our children that undesirable behavior brings unpleasant consequences. An example of this would be as losing out on a privilege, e.g. "You can't go to the park today with the rest of us. You will be staying home with Daddy/with a babysitter." Or "You won't be getting a treat when we get home from the park if you fight with other children in the park today." This sends a clear message that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated.

Maimonides, a medieval Jewish scholar, taught that children are primarily motivated by reward and punishment (commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Sanhedrin, chapter 10). This is an important insight into the psychology of a child. Children are not born with an instinctive sense of appropriate behavior. They need to be shown continually what behavior is appropriate so that they will grow into well mannered and civilized adults.