Fun with Tantrums

The hysterical toddler: indifferent to the harassment of his parents.

For parents, even a quick trip to the grocery store can be touch and go if your kids are in tow. What with the pitfalls of the ankle-biting kiddie shopping carts, the happy dragon’s free crap-o-la cookies and the low-hanging candied fruits of the check-out aisle, it’s a wonder grocery stores aren’t trashed wastelands of weeping toddlers and parents in the
fetal position.

On a recent afternoon, I discovered with great dismay that our cupboards were bare. I saddled up The Boy, my pint-sized assistant, now 3, and headed to the Harris Teeter.

Aisle by aisle, with my adorable offspring in the cart’s seat, we conquered the place, singing as we rolled, sharing kisses and bad knock-knock jokes.

Other shoppers smiled at us. “What a Good Mom,” they seemed to be saying with their eyes as they passed by.

As we turned onto the cereal aisle, we encountered a full on breakfast breakdown. A little princess had popped her tart and was angrily tearing cereal boxes off the shelves. Her desperate mother was trying to keep her from going completely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I felt for the mother with her futile attempts to regain control. But mostly I felt relieved that it wasn’t my child.

As we sped away from the tempest, I leaned in and asked The Boy, “Was that girl making good choices or bad choices?”

“Bad choices,” the Boy responded, still stunned by what he had seen in the cereal aisle.

I smiled at my Perfect Child as we moved onto the final leg of our adventure: The Frozen Food section.

Overflowing with love and parental pride, I felt good. Accomplished. “Veni, vedi, vici,” I thought to myself.

Lost in my maternal hubris, I grabbed a box of frozen waffles and, without thinking, asked The Boy to toss them in the cart. Immediately an alarm sounded in head: “Amateur move made by over-confident parent!” The Boy, you see, is a waffle-obsessed freak.

“I want a waffle,” he whined, hugging the box.

“Not now,” I quickly quiped, trying to hide my panic.

I cursed myself for being so careless. I had to handle this carefully. I couldn’t let him smell my fear.

Louder, he persisted: “I. WANT. WAFFLES!!!”

Speaking in an even and peaceful tone, I tried to calm him. I told him that if he was good, he could have one after her dinner. At home.

The Boy no likey this option. He thrashed wildly, crushing the waffle box as I tried to pry it from his vice grip. He began to emit an escalating series of noises that sounded vaguely like “no,” but in dolphin speak. He began to throw items from the cart.

“That’s enough,” I hissed. “Stop that…”

I hurried to pick up the groceries, diving to rescue the eggs before they had an intimate encounter with the linoleum.

The other shoppers weren’t smiling now. Brows furrowed. The beer-carrying, twenty-somethings steered clear. A Professional Woman with a cart full of Lean Cuisine shot me the hairy eyeball. I saw judgment in her eyes. “Do you know how much sodium is in that, Ms. Nosey Pants?” I wanted to snipe at her. “How’s your high blood pressure? Try
cooking a meal sometime, lazy!”

Then, a light bulb! (ding!) I remembered a tactic I’d read about in a respected parenting book. I told him:

“I understand. You’re frustrated because you want a waffle, is that right?”

He nodded, surprised. For a beat, the tantrum stopped. Misconstruing the message of this popular parenting tactic, he thought he had won. So, imagine his fury when I told him that, while I empathized, he still couldn’t have a waffle.

The Boy’s confusion and unmet demands incited a series of his famous shrill, spine straightening, head splitting, shrieks; musical scales of auditory agony. Hulk no follow logic. Mostly because he’s three and his little caveman brain hasn’t evolved that far yet, but also because he was trying to escape the shopping cart and one of his legs was caught.
He hung half in, half out.

We were now a full-on sideshow with committed viewers. They stared at us, open-mouthed from the tatter-tot/fish stick aisle.

Sweat formed on my brow. My armpits became very hot.

I considered just giving him the flipping waffle. Ripping the stupid package open, tearing the inner-bag with my teeth and throwing the frozen hockey puck at his little blond head. “HERE!” I would scream, “Take it! Have it! I don’t care if you eat waffles every day for the rest of your life!”

But that would be giving in.

And to give in would be allowing the Boy to violate my parental force field and allow him access to my fuse box. And then it’s flip, flip, flip… he’s got me.

I was tired. So tired. Frustrated. Angry. Embarrassed. I wanted to click my heels and be home. I wanted to walk – no, run! – away, leaving the Boy’s evil doppelganger dangling from the cart. To let the inevitable debris and ravaged aisle caps be someone else’s problem. Let them bring in the manager and see if he can tame the beast gnawing through
waffle boxes in frozen goods.

“Clean up on aisle twelve!” I’d hear as I sprinted for the exit.

At this point I wondered if I needed professional help. Super Nanny? Dr. Phil? Dr. Kevorkian?

So I stopped, and took a breath. Gently cupping the Boy’s beautiful face in my hands, I looked him in the eyes and said:

“We’re outta here.”

Abandoning cart and crisis I scooped up the Boy and, with as much grace as I could muster, fled the scene. The path of least resistance always leading home, where the bottom stair awaited a time out and three minutes of toddler brain reboot.

Groceries are always available, tantrums are finite (though they feel infinite while in the midst of them), embarrassing public episodes dissolve into distant memories, and as Scarlett would say: “Tomorrow is another day.”

This piece will be published in the Capital Community News,’ Hill Rag, March 2011.