Getting my children to behave in public has always been easy. It’s a simple strategy that’s often used in team building whenever team members start bickering: create a common enemy so that the group has to work together to defeat it. My common enemy is public embarrassment. In other words, when the kids become too self absorbed or competitive with one another I go into my own little world and engage in behaviors the kids find embarrassing in public. Such as dancing to the Muzak (I studied some ballet in college). Or singing the National Anthem off key. Or reciting The Raven as a dramatic reading in front of a display of cantaloupe in the supermarket.
When the kids were very small they would interrupt their fighting and start screaming for me to stop whatever I was doing. I suspect it was because they were no longer the center of attention. “No dancing! No dancing here!” they would scream as they tried to physically restrain me.
At this point I would tell them that I had to do something to feel happy again because their fighting was making me sad. That sort of logic works very well with kids under five. Now that they’re older I can be more direct and tell them that arguing in public is just as embarrassing, albeit far less entertaining, than my robot dance in front of the scientific calculator display in Office Depot. My typical response when they ask me to stop embarrassing them: “I’ll make you a deal: you learn to work out your problems without arguments and I’ll learn to control my desire to robot dance in public.”
The beauty of this technique is that it has only gotten more effective now that they’re teenagers. I only wish I had gotten more of this on film.