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Five years ago, when I was 27, I was shopping with my three-year-old son, and he threw a massive fit. I don’t recall why Tristan got so worked up, and with a three year old sometimes you never know what is bothering them, but what I do recall were the glares. The rolled eyes and irritated, put-out expressions from twenty-somethings that attended the same college I did.
One young woman said something to her boyfriend, and I can’t recall exactly what she said, but it was something to the tune of, “If you can’t control your kids, than 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.
I bent down to pick up my screaming son and take him to the car, when he punched me in the crotch. I fell to my knees, and let out a long exhale. Up until that point, I don’t think I’d ever been seriously angry with my son. Irritated, yes. But right then, I felt a blinding rage, and I will admit that I struggled to control myself. 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 a bit 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 three-year-old, this is a huge accomplishment. However, near the middle of my speech he picked his nose and ate it, and suddenly I was faced with a new problem.
Most of Tristan’s actions were on impulse up to that point, and it was then, in the dressing room, when I was trying to figure out how to make sure that my three-year-old son never did something like that again, 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.
That day, at Target, I realized 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 do it was by taking him out, and showing 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 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.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.