My oldest child, Sophia (who was 2 at the time), was not having this grocery store visit from the moment I unclicked her car seat. We had already been running errands, but I just needed “a few things for dinner.” Even typing that right now is as much of a lie as it was 12 years ago. But in my need to get it all done, I told myself, “This will be quick, just in and out.”
It was a classic overparenting move — meaning, I was sure I could and should control her no matter how wrong it was to drag her to the store — if ever there was one. From the arched back to the thrashing legs to the screams, there was no question about how my daughter felt about it. From the get-go, this trip was going to be a disaster.
But because I was a young parent, inexperienced and determined (see also: stubborn and controlling), I was going to get the food, and she would just have to deal and learn. After all, that’s what parenting is, right? She needed to learn to acquiesce.
It didn’t take long before I was in a full flop sweat. The lollipops had been offered to and rejected by Sophia, and the shoppers were openly glaring at me and my devil-child. I was frantically trying to keep my daughter in the cart and scan the shelves, all while trying not to meet the eye of one other human. My panic, as well as my irrational anger toward every shopper in the store, was growing, but I would not let this little girl get the best of me.
You know where this story is going, right?
As I leaned over to pick up the Cheerios, Sophia stood in the cart. I turned to catch her as an older woman shrieked. More alarmed by the woman than my daughter, I cursed. The woman’s hand flew to her mouth, my daughter kicked me in the gut, and just like that, I came to. I looked at the cart bursting with food and the horrified woman, and immediately knew: I have to get out of this store.
Tossing my daughter over my shoulder, I found the nearest grocery clerk and said: “I’m sorry. I have to leave. I am not coming back for those groceries.” He took one look at my daughter, nodded, and I ran out of the store, my face aflame with embarrassment and failure. I was enraged at the older woman who scared me, I was enraged at my daughter for being such a 2-year-old, and most of all, I was enraged at myself for pushing this agenda upon my child, everyone in that store and myself.
But . . .
I left the cart.
Leaving that grocery cart was one of the best parenting decisions I had ever made, because, of course, the cart was just the cart, but leaving it in the middle of the aisle has come to mean so much more to me than that one simple act. It was my first lesson in how detrimental my overparenting was — in other words, assuming I was in charge of everything as Sophia’s mother, and if I just parented her the right way, she would turn into the perfect child in every instance. The grocery cart incident was my first lesson in learning to stop pushing, pushing, pushing my agenda and instead learning to work with my child.
I believed that if I started a job, I needed to finish it. My child was along for the ride, and she needed to learn that her needs were secondary to whatever task was at hand. If you had asked me point-blank: “Meghan, do you care that your daughter is miserable while you shop for yogurt?” I would have told you that, “Yes, of course I care,” but what I didn’t realize was that deep down, my unconscious fears screamed: “If you give this child an inch, she’ll take a mile.” My act of shoving my daughter into the cart, my irrational stubbornness and yes, my profuse sweating (my body’s way of telling me, “Whoa, you are really in a panic here . . .”) was driven by unspoken rules that simply were not true.
The food wasn’t worth the disconnection with my child.
From that point on, “leaving the cart” became a North Star in my parenting life. It is a metaphor for these very questions: “Am I pushing because there is a true need? Or am I panicked over an irrational fear or expectation? And is my pushing adding to or subtracting from my relationship with my child?”
The interesting thing about my “leaving the cart” anecdote is that, when I share it with other parents and clients, the parents naturally tell me about their perspectives on controlling their kids (or not). Some parents will remark, “Oh, I could never do that. My child would have just needed to deal! Kids needs to learn or they will own you.” Aha! Yes, I know this parent! Hi, my name is Meghan; nice to meet you, my fellow control freak.
And some parents, upon hearing my “leaving the cart” story, heartily agree. “Oh, yes. Always leave the cart. Who needs that drama? I don’t go anywhere if I even think it might be too stressful.” I know this parent, too. I married him. This parent is mortified by stress and outbursts, and often caves in the face of the smallest pushback.
And yes, there are the very rare parents who actually parent in the middle: “There are times when you need to just leave the store, but there are times when you must push through, doing the best you can.” And, as you can guess, these parents tend to not be my clients, as they manage to find equilibrium and serenity in the ever-changing parenting landscape of awareness and decision-making.
When I left the cart in the store, I didn’t make a good or a bad decision. I made a decision based on my real life, right in front of me. Not the stories in my head, not what a parenting expert thinks I should do, not what my guilt, shame and ego were saying. The reality was that there was no reason to continue shopping in that kind of misery. I was damaging my relationship with my child and, as important, creating an untenable standard for myself.
When I speak to parents about staying attentive to what is real, when I ask parents whether they can “leave the cart” in their own parenting lives, the No. 1 worry I hear is: “But won’t I become inconsistent?”
Our parenting culture loves to go on about consistency, but mostly, we’ve got it wrong. Consistency only works if you understand what is happening in front of you with clarity and compassion. Reacting to your fears, old stories or someone else’s notions of how you should be parenting means that you are consistent: consistently wrong in your assessment. And therefore, you’re applying rules and consequences that don’t support you or your child.
Instead of clinging to a strict set of rules, “always dos” and “never allows,” we would be well-served to ask ourselves: “Can I leave this cart behind in this instance?”
Can I not fight with my child about brushing his teeth because this is not a real crisis right now?
Can I leave my child alone when she is struggling with her homework to see if she can work it out?
Can I stay quiet while my child plays soccer?
Can I apply the consequence when my child did not do his chore?
Some of these answers are yes, and some of these answers are no. For instance, say you have 5-year-old twin boys who seem to spend most of their time wrestling. It often ends in tears, but they also usually get back up and play. Do these children need to be disciplined, or do you feel like they should be disciplined? Do you trust that they are sorting it out? Can you assess the needs of the situation, watch and wait?
Or say the school has called, and your 10-year-old daughter has been teasing and excluding a fellow classmate. Do you leave this alone and hope she sorts it out, or do you call a meeting with her and get curious about her relationship with her classmate?
Or say your 8-year-old whines about going to baseball practice every week. Even after you drag and bribe and get him to practice, he mopes around, doesn’t listen to the coach and puts in no effort. Can you accept the juice ain’t worth the squeeze and just quit the season? Or do you feel like you have to finish the season?
Figuring out what is actually going on with your child and your parenting is nuanced. Unless death and/or severe damage to body or home is imminent, you have wiggle room in every parenting decision in your life. When you realize that you have choices and are not bound to a set of false parenting standards, you are then freed from insecurity and doubt. You are freed from overparenting, and you can listen to your own intuition.
You can parent without limits, and what remains when you stop limiting yourself? The freedom to be the boss of yourself.
Reprinted from “Parenting Outside the Lines” by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group.
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