Whenever I go to a store or a restaurant, I can't help but notice families with children. I watch the interaction between the parents and children and between the siblings. I look for positive signs of healthy family life. Sometimes, I find those signs. Usually, I don't.

You can tell a lot about a family by watching the members in public. For, if the behavior of the family is negative in a public place, one can only guess at how poor it is when they are at home. Let me give you some examples.

If you see a child in a restaurant who refuses to stay seated, won't eat his food (or throws the food around), makes unnecessary noises, demands constant attention, and makes everyone's dining experience a nightmare, chances are that the same child is no picnic at mealtimes at home, either.

In the comfort of his home, this same child probably refuses to stay seated, won't eat his food, makes unnecessary noises, and demands constant attention. Behaviors like that quickly become habits, so I am sure that the kid doesn't behave that way just in public restaurants. Chances are good that the parent doesn't try to correct these behaviors at home. That's why they show up in the public eye.

If a child is demanding in a store, wanting a special toy or food item and performing a temper tantrum to get it, chances are good that this is also learned, habitual behavior. When at home, the same child probably demands cookies and milk, a special TV show, a playmate, or permission to play with an "off limits" item. If the parent gives in at home, the child will expect the same answer when the family is in a store.

Let's carry this topic a step farther. If a teenager is not given instructions on good hygiene at home, students who sit next to this kid in school will soon begin to change seats. I have known some adults whose body odor was so overpowering that, even after they were gone from a room, their presence was detectable. Apparently, the home environment encourages (or is ignorant of) this offense to the "public nose."

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I feel very strongly about parents being the child's most important teacher. No one else affects the behavior and learning of a child more than his parents. No one influences a child more than the family. Once a child gets to be a teenager, the outside world begins to have an effect, too. However, much of the behavior and social skill that a child must learn to succeed in the outside world has already been learned by the teen years.

Sometimes parents actually don't care whether or not their child gets along in public. They say words like "We don't want to stifle his creativity" or "We don't believe in that type of discipline" or "Our child is special and should be treated differently." Parents like those are truly kidding themselves. And, they are not doing their child any favors.

If a child is raised to think he can act any way he wants in a restaurant, sooner or later he and his family will not be welcome there. As the family is arriving in the parking lot, the waitresses will groan, fellow diners will change their seats, and the manager will spread a tarpaulin on the floor under their table.

Not only will the restaurant workers have negative thoughts about the family, but (if the family lives in the area) so will their fellow diners. You can just imagine the conversations the next morning in the beauty shop or on the telephone. "We were out to dinner last night and ran into the Jones family. What a terrible little boy they have!"

If these behaviors continue, when the little Jones boy gets to Kindergarten, his teacher would have already heard nasty stories about his poor behavior. Great way for a child to begin his school career, right?

So, what can parents do to help their children behave well in public? It's very simple. Demand certain behaviors at home. For, whatever a child does at home, chances are good they will do the same thing out in the public eye. The exceptions to this rule, called "House Angels, Street Devils" are few and far between.

Should a parent care whether his or her child behaves well in public? Only if that parent wants to save their child from future trouble and embarrassment.

(IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DISCUSS THIS OR ANOTHER EDUCATION AND FAMILY ISSUE WITH DR. SMITH, SHE CAN BE REACHED AT HER EMAIL ADDRESS: jsmith1313@cfl.rr.com [1] OR IN CARE OF THIS NEWSPAPER.)