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I was flat on my back with my legs tangled up with my daughter’s in the lobby of Cocoa’s Restaurant. As I stared up at the ceiling I thought to myself, “This is not compassionate parenting.” I picked myself up, attempted to pick her up, and struggled out to the car where we sat for 15 minutes. She screamed the entire time while I Googled what was supposed to happen next when you remove a child from a store or restaurant due to bad behavior. This wasn’t going as planned or as promised.
We were visiting family. My Mother in Law had just passed away. We’d driven for three days and were staying in a hotel. We were tired, off our schedules, and grief-stricken. The adults were all keeping their emotions in check and maintaining good manners, but my four-year old was acting out how all of us were feeling. She had a lot of anxiety and energy to burn off and no acceptable outlet for all of those emotions. She was erupting into tantrums throughout the day. I was feeling embarrassed by her behavior and could see the looks we were getting and hear people thinking, “CONTROL your child.” So I tried to, but so far the whole leaving when your child misbehaves thing was only escalating the bad behavior. On top of everything we were struggling with I was feeling like a failure as a parent too.
At one point during our visit my daughter had thrown herself on the ground of a bagel place in San Francisco and a college aged young woman actually came over to tell us we were bad parents because the floor was dirty and our daughter was getting covered with germs. At that point I was so exhausted I didn’t care about germs. My daughter had just thrown an entire bagel sandwich on the ground because her dad had ordered the wrong thing. It wasn’t what she had asked for. I was hungry, tired, and I wanted to go home. Germs seemed like the least of our problems.
After we got home from out trip I spent a lot of time thinking about parenting, specifically I thought about my parenting. I felt so much shame when I thought about our trip. Not only because I couldn’t “control” my child, but also because I did things I knew weren’t working just to appease other people. I was mostly ashamed that I wasn’t treating my daughter with compassion or insisting on time for her to decompress between activities. I hadn’t been parenting. I had been reacting. I wasn’t going with my instincts because I was too worried about what other people were thinking. Actual parenting means setting your kids up for success and actually has very little to do with controlling them.
“What a child doesn’t receive he can seldom later give.”
– P.D. James
We were far away from home. She wasn’t eating or sleeping regularly. She was grappling with death, a concept that was hard for her to understand and also very painful, as it is for all of us. Too many of the things we were doing required her to sit still and be quiet when she really needed some breaks to run around and play. That day I tried to remove her from Cocoa’s Restaurant, and she kicked and struggled with me until I tripped and we both fell on the ground, is the day I think about the most. We’d just spent a couple of hours in a bowling alley while friends and family bowled. She and I wandered around people watching and looking at the video games. We played with the toys she had brought with her. We even walked around the shopping plaza outside for a while too. By the time we left the bowling alley she was bored out of her mind and I was at my wit’s end with trying to keep her happy and occupied. We never should have gone straight to the restaurant. A half hour visit to a park where she could run and climb would have made for a much better restaurant visit. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to ruin our plans. It was a recipe for disaster and the worst part was I knew it and didn’t do anything to prevent it from happening.
As we sat in the car and she screamed I felt angry with Google and all of the parenting blogs for making this behavioral strategy sound so easy. I felt hopeless. I could not parent my child well. What worked for other people was not working for us. I was disappointed in myself. I was embarrassed. We’d just fallen on the ground in front of an entire restaurant while my daughter kicked and cried. What could be more humiliating? It was all proof that I was a terrible parent and my child was a brat. Except I knew what nobody else knew: We were grieving and tired and stressed out.
I now know, without a doubt, that if my daughter is having a tantrum, removing her doesn’t do much except make her even more stressed out and frustrated. The real solution is to not go to begin with. We spend enough time together that I can tell when she has had too much…everything…and is reaching a breaking point. She needs time to herself sometimes and time to be a kid. You can’t expect a four-year-old to be quiet and sit still for long periods. It’s just not going to happen. She cannot behave like an adult for hours. She cannot sit still and “be good” for hours. Trying to make her do that and then punishing her when she can’t is ridiculous. As a compassionate parent I need to focus on prevention and not push her beyond her limits.
I need to offer other ideas when I think the plans we have made are not going to work out. As I sat in the car disappointed with myself and angry at Google, my Father in Law came out to the car to check on us. As he opened the car door and heard the wailing from the backseat he offered a solution. He decided to order food to go and eat it at his house. That solved the problem. My daughter was fine once we were back in a comfortable environment where she could play and didn’t have to worry about bumping into other people or getting into trouble for annoying other diners. I was more relaxed too.
“Your kids require you most of all to love them for who they are, not to spend your whole time trying to correct them.”
― Bill Ayers
As I sat at the kitchen table, feeling embarrassed and terrible, my Father in Law looked at me and said, “I think Lily could use a glass of wine.” This simple statement reminded me to have compassion for myself as well too. Parenting is tough and what works for one family may not work for another. Sometimes kids behave badly because they have been expected to behave like mini adults and they cannot maintain that behavior long enough to make actual adults happy. Sometimes parents let their kids roll around on a dirty floor because they are trying not to pay attention to bad behavior. Sometimes we experiment with parenting strategies we read about on the Internet and fail miserably. Sometimes we succeed too.
Sometimes we just need to be home with people who love us and sometimes we really do need a glass of wine. We almost always need to treat ourselves and others with a little more compassion.