Cucumber, lettuce, tomato… with effortless repetition the teenage boy at the checkout scans my groceries, the bleep bleep punctuating the bustling of a busy supermarket. Suddenly the tantruming wails of a small child echo loudly from the next checkout, and pained cries drown out the bleep bleeps and rustling of plastic bags. The checkout boy and I look over to a flustered mother attempting to calm her child.
‘Will you shut that kid up, or will I?’ he sneers, a wry smile on his face. ‘That’s what you get when you give kids whatever they want,’ he continues: ‘kids these days are such spoilt brats’.
I look around to see other people staring, shaking their heads and muttering. I feel a rush of sympathy for the mother doing her best under the gaze of judgment.
How DO you parent a child in public?
The past year has been a continuous lesson in parenting under the gaze of others. We live on a Bible college campus far away from home and have endured our fair share of community meals, airports—and international flights—all with a toddler in tow.
Parenting in public reveals so much about my own heart—nothing forces a parent to deep self-examination like the public tantrum of a two year old! Here are some of the things I am (sometimes painfully) learning.
I am uniquely qualified to be a parent to my child
I am often tempted to parent my son differently while I am in view of others. This usually manifests in two ways: a lack of response, or a harsh response.
It is hard to constantly watch a small child and continue meaningful interactions with other humans—especially in an open space. I find it too easy to let something important slide, or ignore warning signs a meltdown is on the way. Sometimes my inaction is born of laziness and sometimes distraction.
There are other times when I feel the burn of eyeballs in my direction, and imagine the judgmental thoughts shooting my way. Imagined judgement often causes me to overreact, treating my child harshly in response.
Both of these responses are unhelpful.
I am uniquely qualified to raise and care for my son. I am with him day after day and know how he behaves in public and in private. I was chosen for this task: God gave us the gift of a child, and he graciously made me a mother. Yes, I often feel inadequate. Parenting is a hard, messy and often frustrating mission, but parenthood is an appointed role.
Take heart: God equips those he calls. He promises boundless grace and offers his wisdom freely to those who earnestly seek it.
Preparation sets a good foundation
I’ve learnt to think ahead in order to anticipate what my son needs in certain situations. Making sure he is well-fed, well-rested and emotionally prepared has enabled us to get through long bus rides, flights and quiet meetings.
I try to talk to my son about what we can expect from different social situations, and how I expect him to behave when we arrive. Even very small children pick up on simple explanations (‘we’re going to crèche where you can play with your friends’ or ‘we will take a train ride before we get to the zoo’).
But sometimes—despite my best efforts—life gets in the way and I am forced to deal with the hard bits of public parenting: the poo explosions, the toddler meltdowns, the hungry cries and tired grizzles.
Plan for failure
I’ve learnt to plan for failure, to prepare a path forward for when things don’t go exactly to plan. Often it’s as simple as being mentally prepared to remove my child from the situation when things go awry—sometimes a simple change of scenery helps.
During these times I am most tempted to react harshly. Sometimes I want to flop down on the floor and join the chorus of wailing cries! However, it is in the midst of the sweaty, exasperated tantrums I am struck by an ‘aha’ realisation of God’s goodness to me.
Yes—in him I have forgiveness and grace. He bears my childish wandering, my frustrated pleas to ‘do’ life my own way and the temper-tantruming of my heart. His gentleness and love guide me. His patience helps me endure—and extend patience to our son.
God’s grace enables me to come to down my son’s level, to make eye contact and respectfully acknowledge the situation: ‘I know you are upset, tell me what is wrong, I will listen’. God’s love allows me to be firm: ‘I cannot let you climb/touch/eat/throw/hit, it is too dangerous—I know this is frustrating’.
God’s patience helps me keep calm when I want the ground to swallow me up—because I know my worth is not dependent on my child’s behaviour. I have the confidence to take a deep breath and look the judgmental stranger in the eye, smile and say: ‘We all have bad days!’
Do I really know how to parent in public?
No: but I am learning.
God is using this appointed role to shape me and mold me. The varied moments of motherhood drive me to my knees and to the foot of the cross, where I learn from the perfect parent: a loving God who bears with us and extends his patience to us daily.
This article was first posted on Christian Today Australia.