A Crash Course in Gentle Parenting: Toddlers and Mini-Carts Don’t Mix

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My husband and I recently took our toddlers to a new grocery store in town. The market is known for its amazing deals on produce, impressive bulk selection, and (among the 6-and-under-crowd) for the line of shiny red pint-sized carts waiting just inside the front doors. “They are going to love this!” I said, laughing at my son’s wide eyes as he ran into the building. My husband was already busy chasing after our daughter and picking up the oranges that were rolling down the aisle in her wake and it wasn’t long before my son was also veering off course, running full steam towards the mountain of bananas. “Okay. I can do this.” I coached myself, ready to try a few of the gentle parenting ideas I’d been reading about. And then, instead of giving in to my natural impulse (shouting “no! no! NO!” and grabbing his cart away), I simply stepped between him and the tempting tower. I asked him if he could pick out one bunch of those beautiful bananas and of course he was thrilled, placing them in his cart with such pride! I was so impressed that the yell-free approach had actually worked, my heart swelled with optimism and confidence to tackle the rest of our list. 

A Crash Course in Gentle Parenting

If only it were so simple! The rest of the trip was a marathon of near-misses and small disasters. We suffered two early cart-tippings (Have you ever seen an avocado explode? Instant guacamole.) and entirely abandoned our search for cheese when we realized it was located right next to the looming display of fancy glass-bottled oils and vinegars. The freezer section was prime for toddler cart drag racing: the displays lit up like a runway as my little maniacs barreled down the aisle, drunk with freedom. There was a bit of a tussle as we zipped past the bulk bins (so many enticing treats just begging for a sample!) but the end was in sight: a check-out lane was just opening up and the doors to freedom (and child-restraining car seats) shone as bright beacons of hope just beyond the registers.

I tried to hype it up to my kids as I steered them toward the empty lane:  “Look guys! Now we get to put all our treasures on the shelf and buy them!” [ahem. marketer I am not.] I reached into my son’s cart and he threw himself into the wall of check-out snacks and then onto the floor, full-on meltdown mode. Screaming, crying, kicking at other customers, grabbing things off the shelves. It was intense.

So see, I’m trying to become one of those gentle parents. You know the ones. We’re all waiting patiently in line and their kid is throwing the biggest fit but they just take a deep breath and squat down nearby saying things like, “I see you’re really frustrated. You want to keep the cart, it was really fun to push. It’s time to buy our food so we have to be all done. I see you’re really upset. I have to move you so you don’t hurt anybody.” and we’re all like “Lady. Did you rehearse that monologue? Do you really think he’s even listening? How could he hear anything over that piercing scream? Drag that child to the car so we can check-out in peace. Your kid is out. of. control.”

A Crash Course in Gentle Parenting

Gentle Parenting

Gentle Parenting. Attachment Parenting. Respectful parenting. My foray into this new-to-me parenting philosophy has come as my twins approach their second birthday, well into the frustrations of little people who possess intense desires and sub-par communication abilities. The world around them moves sometimes much too slow and sometimes much too fast and it takes a toll on their already taxed reservoirs of calm.

As their mom – an introvert who often feels out of step with the social expectations of my peers – I should be able to relate to their struggle. I should have compassion and insight and patience, understanding the miserable reality of being forced to do something you don’t want to do, especially in front of other people. Except, I don’t. I feel embarrassed. I want to crawl into a hole, drag my toddler down with me, and disappear. I feel the laser-eyes of annoyed strangers, their huffing as they move out of the way of my kid. I doubt myself and think ugly things about my children and vow never to run errands with them again.

But there I squat, trying to be calm but mostly not knowing what I’m doing. Eventually I decide it’s time to get our loud little show on the road. I leave my daughter with my husband to pay for the groceries and I head for the car, carrying my screaming son in one arm, hunched over so I can push the absurd little cart with the other. I’m about to totally lose it on him (and on my husband, just because I’ve got rage to spare and want to spew it everywhere) when some sweet grannies stop us, look me in the eye and tell me my son is darling and that he must have had so much fun with the cart, adding “poor dear” for good measure. *Poof* Rage be gone. Grannies of the world, what would we be without you?

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So it seems I’m learning less about how to be a good parent and more about how much baggage I bring into my parenting. I’m realizing that the ways I was disciplined as a child have a huge influence on how I feel about my own kids’ behavior. How much respect matters to me. How much I want to be complimented on well-behaved kids. How I hate to be the center of (negative) attention. How personal it feels when my children catapult us to center stage.

Gentle parenting involves a lot of checking in on my own motives and expectations. It requires me to keep working out my own issues and to remind myself of what I’m really working for (strong, capable, thoughtful, emotionally intelligent people) and what I’m working against (my ego-protecting anger, children who behave out of fear). Gentle parenting takes the long view while being present in each moment. It empowers parents to provide helpful limits and boundaries for their child’s world while also making space for and respecting their child’s needs (emotional, physical, and developmental). I.e., I’ll let my child have a tantrum on the floor in the middle of the store because I respect his frustration and the intensity of his feelings, but I won’t let him knock over a display or ram a cart into someone’s legs. (In retrospect, I suppose I can sympathize with him. During his scream-fest all I wanted to do was throw something massive across the floor as a diversion and run out of there.)

At the end of the day, I realize I keep coming back to my discomfort at my own lack of control over my kids’ behavior. I want to minimize my own embarrassment. I want other people to be impressed with my kids. I want my kids to “get it”, to respect me and my decisions. I’m looking to them to validate me, to prove my worth as a mom. It’s a startling realization and a pretty scary place to try to parent from.

So, I’m going to start making the same plain observations about my own emotions and asking myself the same questions I ask my toddlers. A meditation of sorts, one I can dive into even crouched down in the check-out lane: “Julianne, it seems like you’re really frustrated. You thought the shopping carts would be a fun new experience for the kids. You’re feeling embarrassed about your lack of foresight. You’re feeling exhausted from running around a crowded store, hunched over a tiny cart and a screaming little person. Now he’s on the floor and you don’t know what to do. It’s okay. Breathe. You’ve got this. They trust you. You’re a good mom. You will make it to the car.”

“But, Julianne, never again, okay? Never. Again.”

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2 comments

  1. reinventingjess says:

    I try to use gentle parenting with my 3 year old. Sometimes I end up yelling, and sometimes I don’t (I’m only human, right?), but when faced with a tantrum in public, my first thought is always, “What am I doing wrong???” and then, “My Mom never would’ve put up with this. How did she prevent/stop this?” It seems like online and especially in FB groups focused on gentle parenting, most moms don’t talk about how employing gentle techniques means letting them tantrum on the floor sometimes (but not knocking down displays or running into people with little cars – good call on that on, BTW). The examples are always, “I respect little Quinoa and s/he knows that and, therefore, behaves accordingly even at 16 months old.” There’s never any mention that no matter how gentle, respectful, or patient you are or how much planning and foresight you put into a situation, toddlers are still going to find reasons to melt down and loose their minds. More stories like this need to be shared in those gentle parenting groups to provide REAL examples of what gentle parenting is. Once I realized I wasn’t doing anything wrong (and fighting the feelings that my kid would be better behaved if I were a “tougher” parent) I started feeling less frustrated at situations and was able to keep my cool through some really crazy meltdowns. Baby steps, right?

    • Julianne Van't Land says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences reinventingjess! It is such a daily struggle for me too, especially when toddlers just carry on being toddlers, melting down time after time no matter how gentle or patient we are because it’s just how they express their big feelings at this confusing and overwhelming age!
      It sounds like you’re an amazing and hard working parent, thoughtfully processing your needs and your toddler’s needs and taking it one day (or one tantrum!) at a time. Solidarity! :)

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