I watch helplessly as our son bolts through the jewelry store — no shoes on, pushing his toy truck through the aisles, and laughing as he realizes I will not raise my voice any louder. He passes a fellow customer, who turns to me and says, “Look at how much fun he is having!” While my resigned facial expression says that he is alone, I’m happy for the kid. He’s having a good time. The kid loves being out in public. He likes mixing it up.
We routinely visit my wife at her work — a local high-end jewelry store — to accommodate breastfeeding logistics for our second-born, or to squeeze in some bonus family time on a lunch break. Most days we are in and out, but occasionally, our oldest son likes to mingle with my wife’s co-workers or the store’s clientele, showing off his sales skills, which are considerable. When this happens, I notice a tug at my psyche.
“You need to control your kid.”
But why? He doesn’t seem to actually be bothering anyone. Sometimes, sure, but what’s with this barely suppressed need to dominate?
For most parents, a longing for control can be traced to a single sound — the whimper of a child in public. This oft-stigmatized sound, loathed by airplane passengers the world around, has become a litmus test for a parent’s ability to manage their child’s behavior and emotions. And as parents, our awareness of this test sinks in sooner than we think. We try to quell a child’s cries at a restaurant. We fail. We internalize the failure and it becomes an excuse to stay in or to stay in control. But when we step back — when I step back — it’s pretty easy to see that the problem isn’t serious.
Most people don’t mind kids acting like kids. Some do, for sure, but I’m not sure that’s my problem. So I try to do interrogate my concerns.
“Is he hurting anyone?” No.
“Is he causing damage to their property?” No.
“Is he defying the societal norms that are commonplace in a high-end retail establishment, leading others to believe that he is the insubordinate child of a spineless father?” No comment.
“Am I projecting the assumed judgments of others onto myself?” Probably.
My need for control in public spaces is not so much about my child — it’s about me, and my fear of being judged by patrons and employees. It’s a hasty generalization that leads to constantly apologizing for our son and comparing myself to imagined parenting standards.
If you took a poll in any given store my child just rampaged through, I believe most would say that they were unbothered — and maybe even delighted — by the interruption. Why am I so programmed to think otherwise? Maybe it’s an evolutionary trait I’ve carried over, activating my fight-or-flight system — panicking at the thought of my noisy child outing himself as easy prey for a sabertooth tiger or scornful baby boomer. (Where are my anthropologists at?)
When we apologize for our children, what are we really apologizing for? The logical answer is rule-breaking, but my son has yet to accept the terms and conditions of normative behavior. To him, the rules adults treat as commonplace are silly and counterproductive. His prime directive — enjoying the world around him to the fullest extent possible — doesn’t allow for that level of self-editing. It’s my job to change that carefully and kindle, but… he’s 2 years old. It is ridiculous to think that he would understand all the nuances of his environment — as when adults change the rules based on a location’s degree of informality or fanciness. He knows he’s not (usually) supposed to shout while indoors. Isn’t that enough?
There’s part of me that thinks so and part of me that clearly does not. That second part of me is the part that apologizes for my kid. And I know this is crazy. By apologizing for my kid I’m prioritizing a retired baby boomer’s scorn over the joy of a toddler. But I do it anyway. I try to catch myself, but I do it.
So, what’s the answer here? Self-control, I suppose.
Maybe I don’t need a tighter grip on my kid; maybe I need a tighter grip on myself. After all, it’s impossible and unwise to attempt to control the mental and emotional development or children. Better for them to learn empathy by meeting people and cause and effect by knocking stuff off shelves. Better for us as well — and by “us,” I mean all of us. Better to live in a world in which kids are running around having a good time. Some shoppers like it. Maybe most. It’s nice.
Nothing wrong with a little fun.
Zach Short is a marketer who lives on Florida’s Suncoast with his wife and two boys. When he isn’t writing about himself in the third person, he enjoys side-hustling as the family smoothie chef and resident storyteller.