I have found that there are few topics that ruffle feathers more than the subject of the Haves and the Have-Nots. The Have-Nots feel constantly put-upon by the Haves. The Haves bristle at criticism from the Have-Nots. "If you were a Have," the Haves say, "you wouldn't be so cavalier about things."
I am, of course, talking about those people who have children, and those who don't.
The universal opinion of people who have children is that people who don't should keep their mouths shut when those children misbehave..
It's true. Michelle and I don't have kids. For various reasons, it just hasn't been in the cards. (For those who care, we're going to go the adoption route, hopefully sooner rather than later. And it will probably be older kids.)
Unsurprisingly, to people who have kids, that makes us unqualified to comment on others' parenting methods. I don't agree, but I do understand the rationale. Never judge a parent until you've walked a mile in their shoes, or at least stepped barefoot on one of their child's Legos.
Hey, I get it. Child-rearing is hard work, especially for parents who have mentally or physically taxing day jobs, who have children who need constant stimulation by electronic media, and who limit themselves to non-lethal punishments. If I am to tell the truth, I can barely get myself through shopping at Walmart without suffering a panic attack or the threat of divorce. I couldn't do it with a three-year-old who apparently runs on Cheerios, fruit sugars, and a fusion reactor.* At least not without stopping by the pharmacy for a child's dose of Unisom.
* - If only we could tap into the energy of 3-year-olds to run the planet. We could solve the oil crisis.
I like kids. I really do. I have been privileged to have friends and family members who have calm babies, bright toddlers, and interesting, well-adjusted children, and I like spending time with them.
But I try never to forget that at the end of the day, they usually go home. So even if I have a taste of the toddler experience, I'm not eating it for every meal.
Nobody likes having to be around a toddler in full meltdown mode, least of all that toddler's parents. You have my sympathy, Mom and Dad. From what I've seen, parents fall into one of three categories when their toddler is doing this:
(1) The parents who will do anything, anything, if you will just please, please, stop behaving this way in public. You want Goldfish crackers? Sure. You want a Mountain Dew? Please take a swig. Just please, please, stop this. These parents are hoping to just get through this so they can get home, where there is TV and wine.
(2) The parents who threaten a series of escalating punishments, hoping to reason with someone whose brain has about the same level of sophistication as that of an adult howler monkey. These parents are to be commended, because you should never negotiate with terrorists. Of course, not negotiating with terrorists means that sometimes stuff gets blown up.
(3) The parents who have simply become numb. They don't hear the tantrum. They just keep trudging through, shrugging off the increasingly potent glares from their fellow shoppers.
Category 3 reminds me of a man, Mr. Barnes, who was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid. He was partially deaf, and he wore an old-style hearing aid, the kind that you put in your shirt pocket, with a wire leading up to the ear. Younger readers will probably never have seen such a thing, but I assure you, they did exist.
This man's hearing aid apparently hummed, because he ended every sentence with a verbal tic: He would hum to match the frequency of the hearing aid's hum. So a conversation with him would go like this: "Nice weather we're having, huh? HmmmmmmmMMMMMMM." "Sure is, Mr. Barnes." "They say it's going to rain Thursday, though. HmmmmmmmmMMMMMMM."
He must have heard that hum constantly. And it must have been nerve-wracking, so much that he had to imitate it just to get the noise to quit for just a second. Eventually it got to the point where he couldn't hear himself doing it.
And so I think it must be for the parents of toddlers. There are just so many instances of antisocial conduct by toddlers that they simply have to tune most of it out for their own sanity; otherwise, they would be constantly reprimanding their howler monkeys simply for doing what howler monkeys do.
I'd like to say that the Category 3 parents are the most frustrating. But the reality is that there is no solution to this problem. Toddlers are going to melt down no matter how good their parents are at parenting, no matter what their parents do to stop them. Bribery, punishment, ignorance--all are the same, and all are equally ineffective. They are going to run around stores, knocking over things, falling down and bloodying a lip, making everything...sticky, and screaming and crying and yelling "Why?" like Kirstie Alley being stood up for a date. That is what they do. We should be grateful that they don't do worse things.
A few years ago, the brilliant David Foster Wallace gave a graduation speech at Kenyon College, which he later turned into an essay, that was essentially about choosing to live as an adult by making small choices that cost nothing but that vastly improve your outlook on the world. An excerpt of that speech, "This Is Water," was made into a short film that illustrated the concepts Wallace was talking about. Stupidly, the filmmakers failed to get the necessary copyright permissions to ensure it could stay published. Here is a link that works as of this publication, but I'm sure it will be taken down at some point. If you can find it, it's worth watching.
(It's a shame that Wallace decided one day that he'd said and done enough for the world and ended it all.)
Non-parents, it's time to stop expecting better. This is the world in which we live. You can choose to accept it and make the best of it by cutting people some slack. Or you can choose to reject it and avoid places where toddlers congregate by doing all of your shopping online (or at Sam's; I rarely see misbehaving toddlers in Sam's Club for some reason--maybe it's the giant quantities that keep them engaged) and avoiding McDonald's and casual-dining restaurants. Or when you see a toddler in full meltdown mode and you can't do anything to help (and who can, really?), instead of expecting the parent to remove the toddler from your presence, just remove yourself.
You can't force it to change. There will always be toddlers, and until they develop a reliable robot babysitter, parents are going to continue to bring their little terrorists to public places.
But don't worry. These kids will eventually grow up to be sullen teenagers. And at least then their parents can leave them at home.
EDITED to remove an overenthusiastic number of carriage returns and a bit of word salad in the fifth-from-last paragraph.