I was in the supermarket the other day and I saw a woman up ahead with a child in the trolley. The child was about 2yo and was crying.
“Look around…” the mother said, “… you’re the only one crying here…”
I am not judging this woman. I understand that there is often A LOT going on in the lives of others that bubbles up to the surface and comes out as frustration when someone is at the end of their tether….
….it’s just that I hear this kind of thing a lot.
It takes many shapes and forms;
“Behave!, everyone is looking at you”
“Don’t do that, you’re embarrassing me”
“Don’t wear that, it will make you look fat/skinny/daggy/whatever….”
“None of the other kids are being as naughty as you”
It always gets me thinking…. People are often terrified of what complete strangers think of them. It is so common for parents feel embarrassed by their kid’s behaviour in public or use the spectre of public humiliation to encourage better behaviour from their kids. Whenever I hear something like this, I find myself asking the question….
How do these feelings of embarrassment and worry about what others are thinking limit how we interact with our kids out in public?
I have found that it takes Wade a long time to pick up a new concept. Some of those concepts are really important, like walking with me and not running out onto the road. I can’t just simply tell him not to and expect it to work. He needs calm, consistent repetition of the idea before he gets it. This instruction needs to be outside, in the real world, with lots of distractions and lots of people. There is no point trying to teach him this at home because its not the same thing.
When we go to the supermarket, there is a long mall type area that I have to walk through to get there. It’s open and safe and we walk past a few shops and kid’s rides. I use this walk to help Wade learn to follow my instruction and walk with me without running away. It takes aaaaaggggeeesss. Some days are more successful than others and some days I have more time and patience than others, but I aim to do this every time if I can. Once we are inside the doors I put him down to walk and I walk ahead for a few steps. Then I stop and turn around to see if he is following me. Usually he’ll be standing there, looking around. I motion for him to come this way and I walk a bit further. When we first started this, he would take off. So, I would take his hand and squat down on the floor so I am eye to eye with him. I put my finger close to his face so he can see it and then I point slowly to the direction we are walking.
“This way, Wade. This way”.
Then I stand up and walk that way. He usually comes for a bit then he will either find someone to say hi to or a shop to look at. I usually let him say hi to people then I tell him it’s time to go and I get down to his eye level and point again. If he wanders off, I say ‘stop’ which he mostly ignores so I will take his hand and do it all over again…stopping, starting, squatting down in the most unflattering position, reinforcing what I want him to do. I must look ridiculous, taking 10 minutes to walk 10 meters, talking to a child that doesn’t talk back and often ignores me, trying to corral him like herding cats into a reasonably straight line….yet, slowly but surely, it’s working for us….and frankly…. I couldn’t care less how I look.
This wasn’t always the case. I used be very anxious in public. My thoughts would be consumed by what others were thinking of me. I would worry about walking into a room and not knowing anyone or having nothing to do with my hands if I was alone in public. I would worry about my clothes or my facial expressions or anything really.
Then, one day, someone turned to me and uttered one of the most life changing sentences I have ever heard….
“You know…99%of the time, 99% of the people are not thinking about you.”
I know this sounds like it should make me feel terribly alone in the world but the understanding of what this sentence meant was liberating. Now, I’m not talking about friends and family here. The opinions of my nearest and dearest are important and valuable. For me, this sentence is about everyone else…strangers, the people you pass in the street or happen to be standing there when you trip and fall flat on your face or the time your child is losing its tiny mind in the street over the wrong colour of the stickers you bought….
It’s about those times when you feel like you can’t behave the way want to because….EVERYONE IS WATCHING!!!
This sentence says to me…Big. Deal.
Most people are thinking about themselves, not me. If I were to trip and fall flat on my face with my skirt up around my ears, most people would stare or even laugh. They would become very embarrassed for me because it would elicit feelings for them about how they would feel if it happened to them. Most people would be reluctant to help me as they become paralysed with indecision about what they should do or how they should act. They are not worried about me and how I am feeling. Some people even like to witness misfortune happen to someone else because then they can symbolically put themselves slightly higher up some imaginary league table…. “Better you than me”
Ever since I realised the true meaning of this sentence I have been able to turn off the chatter in my mind that used to be paralysing for me in public. Unfortunately, I still spend an ENORMOUS amount of time worrying about what I think of me and run myself over hot coals about how I should be doing things better all the time!
But I don’t waste any time worrying about complete strangers.
The moment I fully understood this concept, my brain was freed up to do things the way I want to in public. It made me realise that I only have to answer the my own disapproving eye, not some stranger’s. If someone wants to judge me based on the 5 seconds of my life they are seeing, knowing nothing about my personality, background or circumstances, I can’t stop them. Am I going to go home and change things just to satisfy the disapproving look of some random that I’m never going to see again? Nup.
Now that I am a parent, it’s even more important for me to feel in control of how I feel in public. If I ran for cover every time a Wade did something that reflected badly on me, I’d miss out on teaching him really important lessons.
For example, if Wade throws something down on the floor out of frustration or cheekiness, I make him pick it up. For me, it’s important that he learns that a) it’s not ok to throw things and b) he has to find another way to tell me what he wants. It is as important whether we are standing in the middle of our kitchen or in the middle of the supermarket. He doesn’t know the difference between a potentially embarrassing or perfectly comfortable moment for me. If I demand and expect a certain behaviour at home but react in a completely different way in public because I’m embarrassed, that’s not fair on him and I’ve contradicted all the messages I’ve given him at home.
Yes, sometimes it takes a really long time to get him to pick it up and I can feel 100 pairs of eyes on me, but to me, it’s worth it.
It’s just as important for me not to embarrass him into good behaviour either, by comparing him to others or telling him not to make a scene. I don’t want to teach him that his merit comes from what others are thinking. I want him to have the confidence to take the time to make the right choices for him, ones that he can live with, not the choices that satisfy the whim of the people around him. I want him to know that peace and respect comes when someone is comfortable in their own skin.