How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Those social media posts and blog entries written by moms of young children, complaining about the way strangers interact with them in public spaces — I could have written those. In fact, I once wrote and voiced a five minute piece for CBC Radio about a low point in my public mothering of little kids.

My youngest child is the ripe old age of six and doesn’t attract much attention in grocery stores or restaurants anymore. However, in order to arrive at this time of life, I first had to run the gauntlet of five toddlers.

All five of my kids had monster moments but two of my toddlers – the first and the fourth – consistently and horrendously stood out when we were in public. They were what kind people called “handfuls” or “going concerns” and what not-so-kind people might’ve considered proof that there’s no hope for the future of humanity. Thanks to bad mate-selection on their father’s part, these two also out-class me in every measure of relative size and strength and I often looked more like their underqualified, overwhelmed, soon-to-be-fired nanny than their biological mother.

What I mean to say is I fought in the trenches of toddler-motherhood for as long and as hard as just about any other women ever to complain about it. I hear you, sisters. I remember. Three short years ago, I was you.

I want to show support for mothers of younger children – treat toddler-moms and their kids the way I wish people had treated us. I want to give the assurances I wish someone had given me – even if it’s going to be a few years before toddler-moms will be able to believe me.

Of course, what I have to say might not be true for everyone witnessing the struggle. I know that. I went on the radio and testified about it to the whole country. Yes, there are plenty of grownup weirdos who have no idea how to behave in public and feel they can scold other adults for things that do not concern them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

But I can speak for myself. And between me and more than a few other parents with older kids, it’s safe to assume there are allies among the onlookers. It’s safe to assume:

No one cares about the noise and mess kids make as much as their parents do. Everyone in line at the Wal-Mart has ninety-nine problems and someone else’s little kid isn’t one. To strangers, little kids are pretty much white noise – alright, maybe beige noise but definitely not the red noise they sound like to their own parents. What might be interpreted as hostile glaring from strangers is likely just bored staring, idle bemusement, a lack of anything else to look at. We won’t remember or resent a noisy little kid. But thanks for the floor-show while we wait in line.

Wanna know what we’re thinking of that noisy little kids’ parents? I’ll tell ya. Nothing. We’re usually not thinking about them at all. Like most people, we have no trouble staying busy thinking all about ourselves. Most experienced parents are only too happy to let newer parents enjoy absolute rule in their own jurisdictions. There’s nothing we want more for toddler-wranglers than the free exercise their own good judgment. Maybe we’re jerks but compassion isn’t the only thing on our minds when faced with someone else’s struggle. Sometimes, it’s more like, “Better them than me.”

Our smiles for goofy little kids aren’t supposed to encourage them to keep acting up. We usually give frazzled moms space, willfully trying not to notice them. But kids don’t understand space the same way we do and can wind up too close to ignore. At times like these, our smiles and friendliness are meant to show goofy kid’s mom that he’s not bothering us nearly as much as she might worry he is. It’s a simple sign of good will. His mom is having a hard time and a common, deeply ingrained social reaction to seeing one of our kind in distress is to offer non-verbal reassurance and comfort with a smile. We don’t expect those moms to smile back at us – heck knows we never did – but if they did, it’d probably relieve some tension. It’d feel better than scowling and making a retort about how it’s not okay. The truth is, if no one’s being hurt, it probably is okay.

Sometimes someone is being hurt and it’s hard for moms of older kids to ignore years of well-learned reflexes and let it go. Raising toddlers leaves us with something like a post-traumatic stress disorder, hurling us into flashbacks of our very worst days – the ones when we went to the emergency room hoping the medical staff wouldn’t call the police about our kids’ bizarre but completely accidental injuries. When a fellow mom is distracted and her little kids look like they’re in danger, we might break down and squawk out a warning.

This was me, a few weeks ago. I was waiting in a slow, painful line while a mom with two young kids was paying for her purchases. She was focused on the cashier, trying to move along as quickly as possible, and her older daughter was pushing the baby back and forth in a shopping cart. It was a harmless, boring game. It was so boring the little girl added a new element. She pushed the cart as hard as she could and let go of the handle. The baby was launched toward a metal shelf. His mom was still busy with the cashier and hadn’t seen any of it. So this horrible voice called out “Excuse me, your daughter…” It was my voice. The mother whirled around, lunged for the handle of the cart, and turned back to the cashier without looking at me. She wasn’t grateful. She was ticked off. I get it. It’s embarrassing to feel like we’ve been called out in public for making a mistake. It’s embarrassing to be the one doing the calling. But accidents happen to everyone, even good parents. People jump in to help not because they don’t care about adults but because they do care about kids. That sounds sappy but it’s true.

We’re not trying to sabotage other parents. Everyone in the mall is muddling through, trying to figure out his or her own humanity. For me, being a good human means if I see a toddler standing alone screaming in a big space full of strange adults I will always rush up to him and say, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Are you by yourself?” Among a thousand reasons, I will do this in case someone who may not be such a softie steps in to take advantage of the situation. There is no way for me to know the kid’s mom is standing behind a nearby planter trying to teach him a lesson about the perils of being a doofus who won’t stop running away. I raised a kid exactly like that. I know how frustrated and desperate he can make his poor mother. But I also know how relieved and grateful I was every time my son truly was lost and someone reached out and rescued both of us. Personally, I’m happier living in a world where the “natural and logical consequences” of my kids’ bad behaviour is encountering compassion from someone with no specific duty to love and care for them who’s willing to love and care for them anyway.

Toddler-mothering sisters, we’re in this together, though maybe not at the same time. We’ve obsessed over the same little failures, exulted in the same small successes. Maybe no one has more confidence in young mothers’ abilities to overcome than mothers just a few years ahead of their schedule. We’ve lived through toddlers and emerged largely undamaged. More importantly, so have our freshly civilized older kids.

3 thoughts on “How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

  1. Jennifer of I had a dime for strangers have looked at my wife and I we would be rich. Our son has autism we have been told by people “Would you shut that boy up please!” We call them meltdowns but it’s seems the same to a parent.

    • I have family members with autism too. Their parents are the hardest working people I know. Thanks to my nephews I think I can usually spot a child with autism and be extra understanding — and a little upset when other people are obviously not getting it. All the best and thanks for the comment.

  2. I really enjoyed reading from your point of view. I have 3 kids and one of them is a toddler and a handful, I’m always grateful for any positive help, so although you’re on a different continent, thanks girls being one of the helpers!

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