A favorite weekend outing for my family is the bookstore. I peruse the book selection, my husband enjoys his coffee, and my son plays with the wooden train set in the kid’s section, which, consequently, also provides us a much needed break from supplying adequate toddler entertainment for an hour (if we’re lucky).
Our latest visit to the bookstore, however, was an absolute train wreck, both literally and figuratively. A child was already playing nicely with a single train, and when my toddler approached the train table, he immediately hoarded the remainder. Determined to commandeer all the trains, my son then turned into Gollum trying to reclaim his “precious” and reached for the child’s lone train, screaming “no” repeatedly, trying to yank the train out of his hands and deteriorating into nuclear meltdown mode when he didn’t succeed.
Since my son turned 2, his internal alarm clock has gone off to remind him that he’s supposed to amp up acting “terribly,” especially in public. Any inroads made with sharing have gone the way of the trains he likes to crash or throw when things aren’t going his way. The behavior is not fun to watch, but we signed up for this parenting gig fully knowing that raising good human beings wasn’t always going to be pretty.
So, despite being the embarrassed parents of the kid throwing a tantrum, we wanted to take advantage of this teachable moment and convey to our son that this is not appropriate behavior and he needed to share. Before we could leap into action, however, the parent of my son’s victim chose to appease my son who was clearly in the wrong: “Give the train to the little boy, and go find something else to play with!” His son yielded and ran off to the next activity, while my son now possessed all the trains and magically returned to happy train conductor/despot as if nothing had happened.
I wish I could say that this is the first time something like this has happened, but there have been too many group situations where my toddler may engage in bad sharing etiquette and ultimately prevails because parents respond to his command of the dramatic arts. I admit, he’s a true talent, but it’s as though his crocodile tears threaten to damage their children more than their response to avoiding the inevitable conflicts that arise in toddler territory.
Another example is our frequent ventures to the local children’s gym. My son is crazy about balls, and there is fortunately a wide selection to choose from, and, theoretically, to share. But toddlers have unpredictable whims, so what looks like a perfectly decent ball to us may be riddled with problems that resemble the Plague to them, while another may stand out as the Holy Grail of all balls.
However, this shouldn’t mean that if my child prefers the blue ball to the available purple that he deserves it. It may also seem like an inconvenience that he needs to walk a few extra steps and bend forward to pick up an unoccupied ball, but I think grabbing one from your child’s tight grip is an unnecessary substitute and qualifies as inappropriate behavior. Of course, you may point out that there are plenty of balls available and your child can easily find another, but why should your child have to suffer and find an alternative because my child has decreed it so? Yet again, like a G-rated fairy tale, the crisis was averted and the villagers were saved.
And I get it: No one likes screaming, kvetchy children. Conceding a train or a ball seems like a small sacrifice for the good of humankind, or, at the very least, our eardrums. Yet, no one wins and no one lives happily ever after in either of these scenarios. I may be only two years into this parenting scene, but are we so interested in keeping the peace among our children that we will reward bad behavior just to deafen the noise and avoid conflict?
These children at the bookstore, gym, or anywhere along our path are learning that they must bend the knee to a 2-year-old tyrant to avoid an uncomfortable situation, and my son has learned that he can get away with it. Attention, perfect stranger parents: You are not only sending the wrong message to your children, but also teaching my son that being rude and obnoxious are met with positive results. It’s not OK, and I insist that you let me parent my child. I want him to learn that immediate satisfaction is not the way of the real world. Might he cry, throw himself on the ground, roll around on the floor, and make a terrible scene? Absolutely! But my focus is not on short-term gratification at the expense of long-term character building.
Like it or not, toddlers are impulsive, emotional, and irrational creatures who don’t always make the right decisions. They don’t yet possess the necessary conflict resolution skills to navigate their battles, and it’s our role as parents to provide them with that toolkit, so they will grow up to be functional and rational human beings. It may be messy at times, overwhelming, loud, ugly, or all of the above. But I plan to stick it out, suck it up, and raise a mensch.