But there I was, as other parents and children danced to cheerful kiddie tunes, lecturing a man I didn’t know about the need for parents to stick together, to stop criticizing each other.
I’m not saying my furious finger-wagging was appropriate. I have to admit that loudly ranting at another parent is not the best way to promote the idea that we’re all on the same team, but — this guy. This smug jerk of a dad. He got to me.
The dispute began when my son — a red-headed, high-energy 2-year-old — knocked over another kid. My son tends to get too excited when he’s in a big group. And then he gets physical. Sometimes, that means running joyously to another child and planting a big smooch on her little cheek. But just as often, that exuberant sprint ends with another child’s hair in his fist or another kid on the ground, crying.
Months ago, he had a biting habit that has thankfully (mostly) resolved but my husband and I are on still high alert in music class — a raucous hour of singing, dancing and banging on drums. We shadow him. We stand poised to run interference in case he lunges toward another child. “We give nice touch to our friends,” we tell him, showing him better ways to express himself. “Nice touch,” he repeats, smiling and patting his friend like a puppy.
I’m proud to say we’ve made progress. We almost never see aggressive behavior at home or at the playground. So when we heard about this class — a whole-family activity we could do with our son and four-year-old daughter — we didn’t hesitate. After months of keeping him away from crowds, we thought he was ready.
We may have been wrong. There were good days when he was a model participant, sitting in the circle during the sit-down songs, dancing when we got up to move. It’s working, we thought. He’s getting it. But there were other days, like the one that ended in conflict. That day, he knocked over a smaller girl shortly after we arrived, leaving her with a scrape on her cheek. Then he pulled a little boy’s hair.
I had both kids with me that morning while my husband ran errands, so I pulled them onto my lap and held them close. My daughter happily snuggled in my arms, but her brother squirmed and tried to break free. Eventually, he managed to escape and took off running. I pushed my daughter aside and jumped to my feet, but before I could fully stand, I heard the squall of another child’s cry. I dashed across the room toward my son and his latest victim — just as I heard a man’s angry voice.
“You’ve got to get control of your kid!” he said.
I stopped in my tracks and looked at this man. He was with his wife and a shy little boy — a 2:1 parenting ratio that seemed a lot easier than my 1:2. His son was not the boy my child had just tackled, but this man felt compelled to speak. You’ve got to get control of your kid!
Maybe he thought he was speaking for the room, or for the little girl with the scrape on her cheek. Maybe he thought he was the only one with the courage to say what everyone was thinking, and I have no doubt other parents were indeed thinking the same. Heck, I was thinking the same. I’ve got to get control of my kid! I’d been thinking that for months as I’ve struggled to address behavior that, while not acceptable, is by all accounts completely normal in the playbook of 2-year old boys.
But that’s what made this dad’s remark so galling. The parent who is frantically sprinting after her child to intervene in a toddler skirmish is not someone who needs to be told to get control of her kid. She knows better than anyone that her child is the troublemaker. The mother of the biter or the kicker or the hair-puller isn’t a neglectful parent who cruelly foists her wild hellion onto defenseless tots. She’s just someone who is working on a problem that hasn’t been solved yet. As anyone who’s cared for a toddler can testify, the only solution to two-year-old behavior is time and consistency. You see bad behavior, you correct it, then you wait for that behavior to wane. But during this difficult wait, there will be days like this.
I know my son will be fine. He is smart and funny and generous with hugs. “I love you too, mommy,” he tells me, even if I don’t say it first. I know I shouldn’t care what a stranger in a music class thinks about me or my sweet little boy. But when this man’s critique came flying our way, my face flushed with fury.
I’m not proud of what happened next. I’m not proud that I hoisted my son onto my hip and brought him with me as I confronted this man. I’m not proud of the way I shook my finger at him or raised my voice in anger.
“I am doing the best I can!” I told him, as music played joyfully from a CD player behind me. “If you want to help, you’re welcome to help but you should NEVER talk to another parent that way! Do you hear me? NEVER!”
I could feel the eyes of other parents as I harangued this man. They thought I’d become unhinged, and maybe I had. I’m embarrassed that I lost my cool in a room full of children. I was exhibiting the same impulsive behavior I’d been teaching my son to suppress.
But here’s the thing. Parenting is hard. None of us can do it alone. What if, instead of upbraiding me, this man had intercepted my son before he tackled that other kid? What if another parent offered to dance with my daughter so I could focus on my son? But that’s not what we do. We have rules about privacy and boundaries — for good reasons — but they force us to isolate ourselves, responsible only for our own kids. If our own children behave (as, I should note, my daughter did all morning), we pat ourselves on the back for our parenting. And when our children misbehave, we feel shame. I’ve got to get control of my kid.
I’ve been on the other side of this, too. I remember storming into my daughter’s daycare when she was a toddler, to demand they do something about a biter in her class. My daughter had come home with teeth marks every day for a week. But as I reached the daycare door, I saw the mother of the biter in tears. “We’ve tried everything,” she told me. “Time outs, books. I don’t know what else to do.” I didn’t know what to do either so I hugged her. “It’s okay,” I said, and I dropped my plans to complain. At least my kid’s not the biter, I thought.
But there’s got to be a better way. I’m not sure I’ll show my face in music class again, but I hope that some of the parents heard what I tried to say. I hope the next time they see a mother struggling to manage a rowdy child, they won’t just glance at their own kid and think, Not mine, thank God. I hope when they see a child making trouble, they’ll step forward and offer to help.
Erin Einhorn is a Detroit-based writer. She is the author of the “Pages In Between: A Holocaust Legacy of Two Families, One Home.“
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