I started this post several months ago, but never finished it. Given the conversation here on the blog lately about setting limits for children and saying “no,” I thought I’d finish it and post it, because it seems relevant. The events in this post happened last February, right before Valentine’s Day. I’m not going to finish with a lesson or moral, I’m just going to tell the story of one evening.
It all started when I took four-year-old Sally and one-year-old Bobby to the dollar store after I picked them up from daycare. They needed to pick out boxes of valentines for their friends. Sean had gone straight home after finishing up at work, and told me I could drop one of the kids off with him. I didn’t take him up on his offer because I wanted to let them pick out their valentines themselves. We would stop at the grocery store afterwards for a few things like milk, but it would be a quick trip altogether. Or so I thought.
Once inside the dollar store, Sally and Bobby each picked out a box of valentines. And that is where it should have ended. But it didn’t. Sally wasn’t ready to go. She was entranced by all of the valentines candy. I figured that was okay, that I would let her look around and choose one candy. I set my basket on the floor and turned to some potpourri that might go well in the bathroom. Bobby kept disappearing around the corner, making generous use of his new toddler super speed. Between trying to look at the potpourri and trying to keep track of Bobby, I wasn’t paying much attention to Sally’s perusal of the valentine’s day candy.
When I finally turned back to Sally, I realized that the situation was ballooning. Sally had chosen another box of valentines, and another, loading each into the basket. Then she had selected chocolate roses, boxes of chocolate hearts, and candy jewelry. And that was only the beginning. The basket was so full it was overflowing.
I told Sally that we couldn’t get all of that, that we’d only come for one box of valentines each, and maybe one candy, but she wasn’t listening. I got on her level and looked in her eyes and told her we couldn’t get all of those things, but it didn’t matter. She was focused like a laser on her growing basket of goodies, and she wasn’t about to give up a single item. Meanwhile, the store was increasingly crowded and noisy and Bobby had once again disappeared around the corner.
My stress level was rising and I was feeling overloaded.
I reached into the basket and pulled out the two original boxes of valentines. I went around the corner to find Bobby, grabbed him, and headed for the checkout, calling for Sally to follow. She didn’t. Once I got to the checkout I found that the line was long, and it would be a bit of a wait. Bobby wiggled free and ran off, and desperately I looked back and forth between the register and the direction Bobby had disappeared. Realizing I didn’t have much choice in the matter, I gave up my spot in line and went after Bobby. In chasing Bobby, I came upon Sally, who had grown frantic and was crying, trying to pick up the basket and becoming angry when things spilled or when I tried to put things back.
The heat, the noise, the crowd. I had reached my limit.
I put down the two boxes of valentines and scooped up both children, one under each arm, and carried them out of the store. Bobby was squirming to get down and Sally was some combination of weeping and angry, writhing to get free. Grasping them both tightly, I walked through the parking lot to the car. On the way through the parking lot, I received sympathetic “I’ve been there” looks from two women several decades older than me. Those looks made me feel less like a basketcase.
Once at the car I buckled both children into their carseats. I shut their doors, got into my seat, and turned on the car. As I went to back up, Sally’s door opened and she bolted out of the car. I knew Sally could unbuckle her seatbelt, but I hadn’t realized that the child safety lock was turned off. I put the car back in park, practically tore the keys from the ignition, flew out of my seat, and tackled Sally. Since my decision to leave the store, I had felt removed from the situation, almost like I was watching this happen to someone else. But now I was suddenly very much in the scene and very much angry—an anger born of intense fear.
I’m don’t think I actually yelled at Sally. I do know that I was extremely stern and grave with her. She could have been killed, I told her, trying to find a way to impress on her just how dangerous it was to jump out of a moving car. On a more practical level, I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get both children home safely. Usually our car has a child safety lock, which would have prevented Sally’s exit. I had no idea how it had been turned off—I didn’t even know that was possible. The children had played in the car a few days before, and they must have pressed a button, but I had no idea what button or where it might be.
When I finally felt I had impressed on Sally the danger of her actions, I buckled her back in and got back in the driver seat. I couldn’t find the child safety lock button, but I was fairly confident that she would not try her escape again. She had ultimately been apologetic about her stunt, and I had made sure she really did understand the danger. As I pulled out of the parking lot, Sally moved from angry to tearful.
“But mom, how will I get my valentines?” she asked, crying. “I need to get valentines for my friends! I will have no valentines!”
“I’m sorry, honey,” I told her. “We couldn’t get valentines in that store because Bobby kept running off and you were demanding to buy things I’d said we couldn’t buy. I couldn’t stand in line and go through the checkout with you two like that.”
“But mommy, give me another chance!”
“Sally, I’m too tired out right now to give you another chance,” I explained. “And frankly, I just want to get you home where I can know you’ll be safe. I’m going to drop you off at home with Daddy and then take Bobby to the grocery store. We’ll check if there are any valentines there.”
“But I want to pick out my own valentines!”
“Sally, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable taking you to another store right now after how you acted in that one and in the parking lot,” I told her. “It’s okay, I’m not upset about it, I’m just speaking practically. And I think we will just need to wait until you are a bit older and better able to handle it before we go back to the dollar store. I know, stores can be hard, especially ones that have so many things you want to buy.”
“I can do it now mom! I promise!”
“I’m sorry honey, I just can’t,” I told responded. “I’m exhausted, I just can’t.”
Sally was still crying when I arrived home to drop her off. I’d called Sean, so he was outside waiting to take her. She resisted, and he had to carry her inside.
Bobby and I then headed off to get milk and a few other groceries. The grocery trip with Bobby ensconced safely in his seat in the cart was incredibly relaxing compared to all that had come before, and I began to feel more calm and regain my energy. As we headed for the checkout, my phone rang. The caller ID said it was Sean, but when I picked it up, it was Sally.
“Mommy, I will do better, I promise,” she said, a catch in her voice. “Can you please take me back to the store so I can buy valentines? I will only get the valentines and not other things. Please?”
“Okay,” I told her. “When I get home with the groceries, I’ll leave Bobby with Daddy and I’ll take you with me and we’ll go back to the dollar store. How does that sound?”
I had left Sally with Sean both because I was too tired and worn out to deal with both of them at another store and because I wanted her to understand that actions have consequences—if she is out of control in a store, I will be less likely to take her shopping. Cause and effect, nothing more.
But now I was feeling more peaceful and I was pretty sure Sally had indeed learned from what happened. There was no reason not to take her back to the store. Indeed, I actually felt there was good reason to take her back—it would give her the chance to show me that she could handle it, thus restoring her confidence in herself. Further, Sally and I needed to rebuild relationship, and I happened to know that there was a small ice cream store right next door to the dollar store.
A very grateful Sally climbed into the car when Bobby and I got home. True to her word, she behaved perfectly in the dollar store. She chose a box of valentines for herself and one for Bobby, and went with me to the checkout. Then I surprised her with a visit to the ice cream store, and she laughed over the gummy frog she chose to top her bowl. We at our ice cream together, chattering about the impressionistic map of our town that was painted on one wall and comparing ice cream flavors.
When we got home, it was bedtime, and in spite of the ice cream I had eaten, I was starved. Sean had fed each child when he had them, but I hadn’t been home. But I didn’t mind. I was just glad that an evening that had started out so disastrously had ended so beautifully. It was definitely an evening to remember.