Kids in public places having meltdowns: It’s a good thing

September 2, 2014

The author and his son. (Clint Edwards)

Five years ago, I was shopping with my then 3-year-old son and he threw a massive fit. I don’t recall why Tristan got so worked up, and with a 3-year-old sometimes you never know what is bothering them. But I do recall the glares. The rolled eyes and irritated, put-out expressions from 20-somethings who attended the same college I did.

I remember one young woman saying something to her boyfriend to the tune of “If you can’t control your kids, then stay home.”

Back then I felt that way, too. I tried not to take Tristan out. And when he threw a fit, got loud, really did anything disturbing, I’d drop what I was doing and leave. I told myself it was in the name of social decency.

That day, when I bent down to pick up my screaming son and take him to the car, he punched me in the crotch. To make matters worse, when I looked up at Tristan, he had his hands over his little tummy, and he was laughing at me. Long and hard child-like laughter that reminded me of a grade school bully.

I looked around, and naturally, more people were watching. The same young woman who made the snarky remark earlier had her hand over her mouth, and her expression seemed to say that I’d gotten what I deserved.

I was so embarrassed.

Once I stopped hurting, I swept Tristan up, and carried him to the back of the store and into one of the dressing rooms. I stood him up on a chair, and then crouched down so I could look him in the eyes.

Tristan has rich blue eyes and dirty blond hair, and at the time, large soft cheeks. He was wearing blue coveralls and a red shirt. He was an adorable little boy. Tristan stood there, one hand cradled into the other, his face a mix of fear and confusion, and I realized that he honestly had no idea that he’d done something wrong. I tried to put it in terms that he’d understand. I told him that what he’d done had hurt daddy and made him sad. I could tell that he was listening. When working with a 3-year-old, this is a huge accomplishment. And then he picked his nose.

He, like kids his age, was acting on impulse. It was then, in the dressing room, that I realized I didn’t teach him that it was acceptable to throw a fit in a store, punch his father, and then laugh at him.

But at the same time, I never taught him that this wasn’t okay.

Sometimes young children act like a car without a steering wheel, driving at full speed into this or that. I never really know what my kids are going to do, and it took me years to abandon logic and expect the unexpected.

I realized that day at Target that it was going to take years to teach Tristan how to act appropriately in public, and the only way I was ever going to teach that was to take him out and show him what was right and wrong. By saying no a million times, letting him throw a fit, and telling him no again.

These life lessons take place in shopping centers, street corners, airplanes, restaurants, movie theaters, and a million other places. It’s like falling off a bike, getting up, and trying again. Only it isn’t as simple as that, because it isn’t as simple as learning balance and coordination. Teaching children how to act in public is actually a million lessons on decency and respect that take place in a million different locations.

These lessons take patience, hard work, and real world experiences, and I’m sorry to those of you who get irritated by my children’s fits, but you are part of this practice. Your parents did the same with you, and that’s how you now know how to recognize when a child does something irritating in a store. It’s how you learned to look at a situation and say, “That parent needs to control their kids.”

It’s how you learned to be a respectable person.

I get it. Kids are irritating when they are loud in a store. I know. I’m living it. But before you get angry and judgmental, realize that what you are witnessing is not bad parenting, but rather, parents working hard to fix the situation.

You are looking at what it takes to turn a child into a person.

Clint Edwards is the author of  No Idea What I’m Doing: A Daddy Blog. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (A version of this essay first appeared on his blog.)

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