Let me just start by saying that Wal-Mart is the center of all evil. While I've never been to Bentonville, Arkansas, I imagine there must be a thick black swirling vortex of inexpensive and shoddily constructed items hovering just above the city. Residents have to check the daily evil index before venturing outside, or risk choking on the diabolical fumes of soda shelved directly next to laundry detergent.
I try to keep all this in mind, and I expect it accounts for at least part of the reason why my son acts like such a rotten brat every time we shop there. (Hey, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.) When he was an infant, Eliot loved Wal-Mart. Loved it. Sometimes when he got superbly cranky I would strap him in the car and drive him to the store just so that we could pace the aisles, with him gazing up at the lights and the colors from his chicken bucket. (Some people call it a pumpkin seat; I call it a chicken bucket. Eh huh.
You're actually required to read that line with a Billy Bob Thornton Slingblade accent, in case you didn't notice.)
But at some point, the tide turned, and now I dread taking Mog with me even if it's just to run in for a gallon of milk. Especially if it's just to run in for a gallon of milk. He inevitably refuses to sit in the section of the cart that's actually designed to hold a child, kicking and screaming, and yelling, "No! It hurts, Momma, It HURTS!" if I make any attempt to get him to sit there. Instead, he wants to sit in the grocery part of the cart, which is fine until he gets bored and stands up, leaning out to snatch items off the shelf or knock them to the floor. At this point I think we can all agree that it is Wal-Mart's aura of evil provoking him to do these things, and not a failure of my parenting, which is stellar. Ha. Ha.
In fact, there is very little that makes one feel more like a crummy, useless parent than having a child throw a tantrum in public. First, people look at you like it's your fault that you can't control your kid, and they look at you like that because that's exactly what they're thinking. Regardless of whether these people are parents themselves, they will give you the most hostile stares of scorn and even pure disgust when your kid makes noises as though you're pulling out his toenails and trying to feed them to him, even though you AREN'T EVEN TOUCHING HIM FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY JUST GET IN THE FREAKING CART. And secondly, the whole situation coats you with the stench of double failure, because let's face it: what's your recourse at this point? What is the "good parent" supposed to do here? Most of the time my answer to that question is remove yourself and the kid from the situation. Leave the cart, leave the groceries, and just get the hell out of dodge. Go home and put the kid to bed. And then threaten him with bodily harm if he ever pulls such a stunt again. (Ha—yeah, like he cares! But whatever.) But want if you NEED tampons? Or chocolate? Or something else equally important? What then?
Sometimes my answer is to bribe Eliot with promises of new matchbook cars if he'll just shush and get in the cart. And when I hear myself doing this, when I sort of step outside my brain and watch myself and think about how I would narrate the events unfolding (do other people do this too, or am I just a weirdo?), I feel like I totally deserve those deprecating glances from fellow shoppers. Let's face it, if I were them, I'd be giving me the stinkeye too.
So today, before we ever got out of the car and headed into the store, we had a talk about BEHAVING. I told Mog he would have to behave in Wal-Mart while we did our shopping or else he would not be coming into the store with me again. So he nodded his head and agreed, that yes, he would behave. I told him that if he could be a VERY good boy while we were shopping, he could choose a new car when we were finished. This tactic seemed to work, and actually, I think the whole trip would have gone off without a hitch if it hadn't been for the infernal sensor going off on our way out.
He only needed one reminder about BEHAVING, when we were in the aisle looking at razors and he stood up and reached out to grab a package. I bent down and whispered in his ear (because quiet threatening is way scarier than a raised voice; a raised voice is much too predictable), "If you don't sit down now and stop grabbing, you will not get a car." Magically, he let go of the razors and sat back down without a word of protest.
Even more impressive, when we had finished our shopping and were in the matchbox car aisle, eyeballing the possibilities, Mog pointed at a giant plastic crane: "I want THAT," he said, clearly impressed. I gently replied, "No, we aren't getting a big toy today. Today we have to choose a little car." (And why do I do that—that annoying plural pronoun nonsense? I just can't help myself.) And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the child said, "Okay." And chose instead a very lovely tiny blue forklift.
And all would have been, should have been, could have been well. Except for the sensor. Dear God in Heaven, the stupid sensor. It said something garbled and unintelligible as we passed through, something like, "Please report to the customer service department where an exceedingly bored teenager named Tricia, wearing a blue vest with a yellow smiley face sticker will proceed to frisk you in order to retrieve the twelve Kenny G CD's that we KNOW you have stuck in the waistband of your pants." (Okay, I'm lying. They don't wear blue vests anymore; they wear navy shirts and khakis. Cause you know, they're all upscale now. Pfft!)
So the elderly door greeter lady, armed with her giant gray sensor-y wand, comes over to us, and I'm digging for my receipt, which I had already stashed in my purse, when Mog totally loses it. Because now that he has his forklift, all bets are off, right? He starts scrambling like a lunatic, trying to get out of the cart, throwing himself against me and making noises like a cat in heat. When I lift him out of the cart he goes completely boneless until he slides down my body and onto the floor. Every parent of a child old enough to stand knows the boneless trick. Somehow, unfathomably, they become rubberized and loose so that any attempt to grasp them is fruitless. So Mog is thrashing around at my feet, while I'm simultaneously trying to get ahold of him and dig the receipt out of my purse, and greeter lady and other shoppers are giving me looks of stern disapproval.
Somehow I managed to make it back to our car without dying of shame.
I find myself wondering how in the world my own mother achieved such silent acquiescence from me and my sisters in public settings. I don't remember ever causing a scene in public, and maybe that's because my memory is faulty, but I really don't think any of us girls ever threw a tantrum while out on the town. In fact, I don't recall any tantrum-throwing at home either. Whatever my mom did to us—I don't recall ever having been spanked or physically punished in any way—it was enough to ensure our tacit obedience. I remember that all she would have to do if tempers began to flare was put the squeeze to our upper arm and whisper through clenched teeth into our ear. The mystery of just how much she was capable of was scary enough that we didn't dare push her past her limits. We didn't want to find out what she would do. (Well, except for Adriane, of course. I'm fairly sure I do remember Adriane getting slapped hard across the face on more than one occasion, but that was during the teenage years. That was a whole other story. And the sound of the contact of my mother's hand with Adriane's cheek was so shocking that I think it ensured Elecia's and my behavior for at least several years afterwards.)
I'm left home again, with Eliot, now safely out of the public eye and back to his sunny self, to ponder discipline and obedience. I don't want my son to grow up to be disrespectful or to feel the sense of entitlement that I see in so many of the young adults who are my students. But I also don't want him to become fearful and easily cowed. (This is not to say that my mom erred on this side—not at all. On the contrary, I think I was lucky to have been born to two people who were such wonderful parents.) But how does a parent strike a balance between the two extremes? How do we walk through the shadow of the valley of Wal-Mart and not knock every colorful box along the way off the shelf?