What Did You Expect?

Yesterday I was at Pier I, a home decor store, looking for some sparkly candles to light my table and get me in the mood for the holidays. I love seeing all the gorgeous decorations that get showcased at this time of year. It brings out the child in me and really does fill my heart with a sense of joy and wonder. I know it’s hokey to some but I love to check out the beauty and artistic creativity that is so evident in each year’s new ornaments and displays.

But my fun didn’t last long. Within minutes of arriving I found myself face-to-face with a young mom and her child who was about three. She was harried and hurried and trying hard to pick out some decorations. Her son, being a normal kid trapped in a store with a bunch of people and an endless supply of bright, beautiful Christmassy objects, was not going along with her attempts to make him stand still and just look.

The only words that spilled from her mouth were Dont. Touch. That. Over and over again. I mean, this was really all she was saying. Loudly. And of course, he was having none of it. Who could blame him? Given his age, the situation was nearly impossible for him to manage in the way he was being asked to.

And, unfortunately, the way she chose to deal with his inability to obey her made the whole thing much worse. Instead of cutting her losses and leaving or making an effort to distract or engage him (“Let’s pick out a really pretty one for Grandma. What colors do you think she would like?”) the ineffective Don’t. Touch That. mantra soon morphed into a much louder Stop-that-I-mean-it-I-am-going-to-take-you-out-of-here-in-one-minute-if-you-dont-behave-did-you-hear-what-I just-said chorus accompanied by a lot of pulling, grabbing and scowling. Hysterical crying followed and a full-fledged meltdown (for both) ensued.

I had to walk away, it was that painful. And sad, because I know she didn’t realize how unfair the whole thing was or how she had set them both up to fail. Or how these early Christmas memories can contribute to a general sense of unease about the season when that child grows up. The specific memory may be forgotten but the general bad feeling may remain. So much stress! No wonder so many people hate the holidays.

It was a disaster and my heart went out to both of them. Such an unnecessary mess that could have (should have) been avoided or, at the very least, minimized had this mom understood a little more about what she could reasonably expect from a three-year-old and worked from there. Yes, of course she should be able to go out and shop and dawdle a bit over the ornaments if she wants to.  But she cannot expect a young child to have the patience or impulse control to stand-still-and-not-touch for more than a couple of minutes when he’s surrounded by row after row of glittery Christmas decorations that beg to be picked up. Maybe when he’s 7, but certainly not now.

So what should she have done? What could she have done? Simple: Plan better. One of the hallmarks of good parenting is to develop the ability to be one step ahead of the game. Since things are constantly changing in the life of a mother with kids, you have to really work at being both flexible and prepared. And you have to understand the constraints of any given age. So if, for example, you want to spend 30 minutes shopping with a pre-schooler in a store where everything in sight (and reach) is both breakable and irresistible, you have to approach said outing with the planning and precision of a Navy Seal Operation. It’s got to be down-to-the-minute and include a highly choreographed back-up plan if unexpected circumstances arise.

Yeah, yeah I realize that you like to be spontaneous every now and then. Just understand that you may pay a heavy price for the privilege. So what are some of the specific tactics that she could have employed? Here are a few:

1. SIDESTEP THE WHOLE THING

She could have planned a babysitting trade in advance with a friend who also has kids. They could have exchanged three hours of child care so each could do some holiday prep alone, untethered to strollers, car seats, and little hands that must be held. Then they would be able to shop in peace (well, relative peace anyway) maybe grab a coffee, and not risk creating the giant melt-downs, hurt feelings and bad moods that might otherwise pop up.

2. BE PREPARED

First of all, know what you are dealing with. Get a good book on child development but read only about your child’s current age with a buffer of 4-6 months on either side. Knowing the basics of what he can and cannot be expected to do will save you (and him) hours of unpleasantness and countless headaches. And always keep these outings as short and sweet as possible.

If you MUST bring your little guy into that store you could put him in a stroller and have a bunch of things ready to dole out as needed to keep him entertained and occupied. It’s a good idea to keep some favorite toys that are small enough to easily transport unavailable except when you know you are going to need a fool-proof distraction. We had a GameBoy for this purpose. It only came out during times when one had to be still and quiet for a longish period of time like taking a flight or sitting backstage during an older sibling’s play practice while I was helping with make-up or costumes. Obviously, the toy must be age-specific but you get the picture.

Snacks help too, as does a favorite blanket and pacifier. You can also choose one non-breakable, soft decoration (stuffed santa, for example) early on and let him play with that while you explore the breakable stuff. Make sure it’s a cheapie and be prepared to buy it if it gets drooled on or damaged in any way.

3. WORK WITH HIS SCHEDULE

Again, it’s all about setting realistic expectations. If the stores will be most empty the moment they open and that’s also the time of day when little dude is least likely to get crabby, plan to zip in and out then. But if that’s just about the time he normally takes a nap, don’t expect him to be able to go above-and-beyond when he is tired and out of sorts.

In essence, the real key here is to plan and prepare and be willing to cut your losses and leave if things get ugly. It’s the best and easiest way to create a successful outcome for you both. And just remember that these early years with your little one will fly by and before you know it, he will be in school, and you will have much more flexibility with your schedule. But until then, choose to be the smart, happy mom instead of the crazed, out-of-control one. Please?

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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