There was a toddler having a tantrum in my local supermarket. He gulped and he sobbed. He took deep hiccoughing breaths and he shrieked. You would have thought he’d just been told he was an orphan. The shrieks became howls of rage. Cheeks were puffed and tears flowed. Tiny fists pummelled at the mother’s thigh. I watched her hovering over the child and felt for her. Should she ignore the child? Should she smack? Would a sharp retort of ‘stop it this instance’ have any effect or even be heard above the rising rage.
It’s hard to think of a course of action in the middle of a tantrum. The child isn’t listening, a bunch of strangers are judging you and there are constant reminders of the child’s desire on display. All are getting in the way of a quick or reasonable resolution. Everybody warns you about it but no one knows what to do. They roll their eyes and tell you that it’s just a phase that we have to put up with. And you secretly believe that when your time comes you will know what to do. But you are wrong. Your children may look like Uncle Harold before he had that nose job or even have their mother’s raucous laugh, but your children’s thought processes are alien, you will never comprehend them.
I remembered a three year old toddler with lively brown eyes whose hair was curly and (as the song goes) whose teeth were pearly. He was dressed in a cunning little denim outfit and looked like an angel. Or at least that’s what the grandmotherly types who stopped me in the supermarket aisle and chucked him under the chin thought. They asked coyly which shelf I’d taken him off. Where could they get one just like him? That was usually at the beginning of our shopping adventure. ‘Take him’ I thought as the angel’s chubby little hands reached for a colourful packet of super refined junk food. Take him now before the ruckus starts. But they just smiled, coochie cooed and moved on.
David and I worked our way up and down each aisle stopping only to grab a product off the shelf and to tick it off my list. Whenever I turned my head for an instant, then back again a foreign object had magically found its way into my trolley. Two steps forward and one step back and an ever increasing tension happening on both sides. David was thinking that it wasn’t fair. Here he was, in goodie heaven but not allowed even one thing for himself. What was one bag of lollies in the scheme of things when mummy got to fill all her stuff into the trolley? I was thinking, ‘why me?’ Each week I was hopeful of a quick entry and exit and a tantrum free experience. Each week I was disappointed.
‘Wahhh!’ Well, almost. The lip trembled but he was going to give me one more chance. ‘Mummy, can I have some Coco Pops. Please, please, please, please, mummy?’ When I had a bit of energy I let the pleas wash over me but I kept forgetting the checkout where they saved the best for last. The granny types who’d been so admiring earlier were looking at David with sympathy, the poor little lamb, it’s not his fault he’s got a bad mummy, and shooting daggers in my direction. It was all too much for me. I did the only thing open to me; I capitulated. I am a bad mummy, I agreed. I can’t control my own child.
There’s a second school of thought that believes that parenting is a hard gig and mothers of tantrum children deserve our sympathy. I’m with them.
The disapproving lot will tell you that if you give in to a tantrum at the supermarket you are providing some sort of blueprint for the child or setting a precedent. They are right. Once you say yes to a child the lesson is learned: ask and you shall receive and if you don’t get what you want a tanty on the floor will do the trick. On the other hand who can blame him (or her). I mean if you’d discovered a successful formula wouldn’t you work it for all it was worth?
An idea born of sheer desperation came to me one day. It wasn’t a new idea, I did what parents since the dawn of time have done once they’ve run out of options. I bribed my child. ‘How would you like a chocolate frog, David?’ David would like nothing better. I put one in his hand and told him to hold on to it till we got to the counter. ‘Now don’t lose it, will you?’ The heat had turned it to mush by the time he got to eat it. But it was the best chocolate frog he’d ever tasted. And peace reigned.
When the desire for a chocolate frog waned, and the eyes started roaming again I filled up a large jar with lollies, chocolate bars and wafer biscuits and told David he could choose one when we got home from the shopping. At first David would spend large chunks of time each day contemplating this treasure and anticipating the treat. On the appointed day a chubby arm would dip into the jar and pick something out. After a while familiarity lost it its glamour it and became a natural part of David’s weekly routine. This happened just in time because before David and I knew it, our family had extended by one. David made it his mission to introduce his baby brother into the family tradition.