Last summer, in the midst of the sweltering San Antonio heat, my family and I made the move down to Texas from Chicago. The stress of moving into a new home, registering at new schools, worrying about an approaching hurricane, and then dealing with a gas shortage, was enough to make me hide in my wine cellar while pondering Betty Ford and binge-eating malt balls.
Anyone who has done a cross-country move knows the first few weeks are filled with frustrating calls to utility companies and countless trips to big box stores to load up on household essentials. I was on one of many Target visits when, unfortunately, a bright-eyed, 22-year-old, who is studying childhood education, tried to offer me parenting advice at the worst possible moment.
As I stood at the register with a cart overflowing with paper towels, Lysol wipes, and laundry detergent, my boys were scampering about, poking everything on the shelves, and tackling each other.
Yes, I said tackling each other. Because what else do four boys do while waiting for their mom to pay?
Brittany, we’ll call her, was in line right behind me with her face wash, tank top, and protein bars. As she watched my typical chaos ensue, she couldn’t help but insert her thoughts on discipline as she heard me yell at my oldest to stop pantsing his brother for the fourth time.
“So I find that if you go down to their level, speak in a really calm, quiet voice, and ask them what feelings are making them act this way, you’ll be amazed at the difference in behavior,” she said with a big smile, as if she had just bestowed upon me this huge parenting hack. “They’re really just acting out because they want their emotions heard.”
Her face in that moment was beaming. She had probably learned this amazing discipline technique from an early childhood education class lecture or textbook and felt so excited to share with this poor mother attempting to wrangle her unruly children.
The cashier and I locked eyes, sharing a “you’ve got to be kidding” expression. In that moment, all I could do was look at her and respond, “Well, aren’t you cute.”
Oh, Brittany, sweet, sweet, innocent Brittany, I am so happy that you have embarked on this life goal of working with children. But holy cow, girlfriend, I nearly lost my ever-lovin’ mind on you at Register Six that day.
Because what you didn’t see was 10 minutes earlier, when two of my four-year-olds brought down an entire mannequin display in the lingerie department for fun. You also didn’t witness them hide my car keys in the baking cabinet, causing a three-hour delay and garbage can search, and you most certainly didn’t catch them coloring on our brand new kitchen table with markers.
There’s no doubt in my mind that coming down to a child’s level, speaking calmly, and discussing emotions are beneficial acts. But when you have multiple children, all usually needing something at the exact same time, the ability to turn into Dr. Phil while also paying at the register is not going to happen.
My point, dear Brittany, and anyone else who likes to give advice at Target, is unless you’ve walked in my shoes on my sticky floors covered in the yogurt the boys threw before we even left the house, just don’t.
You didn’t witness my calming voice at 5:45 A.M. when they came bolting into my room. It became more stern by 10:00 A.M., when they climbed onto the hood of the car while I got things loaded. By noon, when they broke the blinds in the kitchen, I started to lose my cool. And at 4:00 P.M., when you witnessed me yell at my kids, I had already been tested countless times and was exhausted beyond belief.
The best thing anyone can do when they see a Hot Mess Express parent struggling to keep it together? Simple. Hold a door open, stop a child from bolting down the aisle by blocking them, or just simply walk by and say, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.”
Whether you’ve got one child or 10, special needs or strong-willed, each of our experiences is uniquely ours. And whether you’re putting your toddler in a timeout in the frozen food section or yelling at them in the parking lot to get in the car, more power to you. So much of parenting is survival, and the best thing we can do to support one another on this crazy journey is be cheerleaders, because let’s face it: We all doubt ourselves enough already, and there’s no universal instruction book for how to manage it all.
So to all the Brittanys of the world, keep rocking those classes. If you really want to help me out the next time you see my circus of a life in the checkout line, hand my kids a lollipop, tell them a joke, and call it a day. Because the last thing a mom deep in the trenches of survival needs to hear is what she “should” be doing. Instead of discipline, maybe give advice on which wine to pair with the next tantrum.