I confessed to a class once, when I was teaching Child Development courses at our community college, that I can’t help myself; I talk to little kids at the grocery store. I will talk to them anywhere, but the grocery store provides more opportunities, as they are corralled in a seat in a cart. And, while their nearby adult is putting groceries on the conveyor belt, I am pretty much face-to-face with them, and it just seems a little rude not to chat. I am careful to keep my distance, and I never reach out or touch them.
Often, they make the first overtures, with a smile or a sound (which I translate as “hello, there!”). And I respond with something like: “Are you grocery shopping with Mommy?” Or, “Looks like you’re buying lots of good food.” Things like that. If they tear up or turn away, I step back to become non-threatening, and start examining closely the candy selections on my right, or begin reading the headlines of the magazines arranged on my left (which is where I first asked the question, a few years ago, “WHO are the Kardashians and WHY are they on the front of every periodical here?”).
But several months ago, I went beyond saying hello to a kid and I talked to a mom. At Hobby Lobby, early in December, I walked by a young mom talking to her preschool daughter. “Yes,” said mom. “You can have a Christmas tree in your room. But, you mustn’t touch it! It’s just for decoration.” I walked several paces, and then turned around to chase them down. I just could.not.stop.myself!
I pulled up beside them and spoke really gently and happily to the mom. I explained that I was an Early Childhood specialist and that I thought putting a Christmas tree in her daughter’s room was a wonderful idea. “But if it’s in her room, it sort of needs to be her tree. If you get safe ornaments and use soft chenille sticks for hangers, then she can put the ornaments on herself and then remove then and re-arrange them. It will be so much more fun for her if she gets to make her own decisions.”
Mom was a little startled by the interference of a total stranger, right there in the holiday section of Hobby Lobby, but she pointed into the cart and said, “They are safe ornaments.”
“Good choice,” I said. “Think about letting her make the decisions. It will help her develop decision-making skills and she will feel very grown-up to be able to think and re-think how she wants her very own tree to look.” And I turned around and walked away.
Too much? Too intrusive? Too meddling?
Much better than the day I unraveled at the checkout at H.E.B. I was in line at the Express Lane, at the busy time of the afternoon, and the line was pretty long. Behind me, there was a young mom and a preschool girl who was sitting in the basket of the cart instead of the seat itself. The child kept standing up, and the mom kept telling her to sit down. Over and over and over and over again.
“You’re not going to get a treat if you don’t sit down,” said Mom. “You are definitely not getting a balloon if you don’t sit down.” Over and over and over again.
I put my groceries on the belt and walked over to the place where shoppers stand to write checks. I picked up one of those sticks that shoppers are supposed to put between their items and the next ones back, and reached to put it in place. I glanced up and the mom made eye contact with me. She gave a little grin and shrugged her shoulders in a “what are you gonna do” gesture. I considered that an invitation to respond. And I did.
“I have heard to tell your daughter, thirty-five or forty times, to sit down. She has refused to sit down and you have not made her sit down. Here is what you are teaching your daughter. You are teaching her that she does not have to do what you tell her to do.”
At this point, mom is getting a little glazed-eyed. But I went on.
“It may not matter right now, because you are bigger than she is. But if you don’t put in place some consequences for her misbehavior and disobedience now, here’s what’s going to happen when she’s fifteen. She will do whatever she wants, no matter what you say, and she will find herself in situations that may be harmful or dangerous or disastrous. And you will wonder why she won’t do what you tell her to do. This will be the reason, right here, right now. Be the parent. Insist that your daughter do what you tell her to do. And, today, if you give her a treat or a balloon, you are simply reinforcing that she does not have to do what you tell her to do, because there are no consequences.”
I handed over my check, got my receipt and my groceries, and left without a backward glance.
I fear I’m becoming some sort of meddling old lady who won’t mind her own business. And I do very much prefer the opportunities I sometimes have to say to a parent, “I think you’re doing a great job with your kid as you (let them choose for themselves which fruit to buy/give them an opportunity to walk close to you while you shop, if they stay near/ignore the tantrum they are having because you said, no, they could not have a Snickers bar right now [and that’s a really hard one for a parent with busy shoppers all around]).
A kind smile to a struggling parent goes a long, long way toward helping them stay calm in a stressful situation. Trust me. And truly, I don’t walk up to strangers and intrude into their families. I wait for a look, a glance, a smile, something that says it might be all right for me to talk. Well, not for the lady with the Christmas tree, but I was really nice about it.
Meanwhile, Peter was here last week, and we had several opportunities to shop.
God, my shepherd!
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction
Psalm 23: 1-3 (The Message)
Oh, yes, God. Send me in the right direction. Help me be sensitive to parents who need a word of encouragement and those who might need a gentle nudge in a more appropriate direction.
Meanwhile, I’m not the only person who talks to little kids and their parents/grandparents in stores. There’s nothing like a red-haired child to bring on the comments. Pretty much everywhere we go.