Parenting

Sometimes Teaching Your Kid How to Stand Up for Himself Means Confronting Other Parents

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“No, no,” says the other mom, swatting vaguely in the direction of her child. “He was playing with that, you need to give it back.” Her toddler emits a wordless shriek and clutches the toy spatula to her chest as if it was her long-lost child that had just been recovered through an in-depth investigation on 20/20. “Sorry,” the mom says, looking at me helplessly and shrugging. She turns back to her phone (or her friend, or her magazine, or the wall she was contemplating).

I offer a tight smile. My kid was playing with that. Her kid took it away. He’s going to get it back. This other mother wants me to let it go, because her kid is just a toddler and she can’t be expected to behave responsibly (and also she’ll have a big meltdown if she can’t have the spatula) so can’t we just forget it? And it would probably also be easier for me (adverse to conflict as I am) to redirect my son and move on.

But I can’t. He needs to learn to stand up to someone who isn’t playing fair. And I need to show him how. Not by standing up to the kid (she’s a kid), I’ve got to stand up to the mom. In order to show my son how to stand up for justice and truth, I’m going to end up confronting that other mother. Which I really don’t want to do. But I can already tell this isn’t one of those situations where teaching my son to ask politely is going to help. But we try that first, anyway.

I turn to my son. “Were you playing with the spatula?” A wide-eyed nod. “What happened?” I ask. “Baby grab it.” “Do you want it back?” “Yes.” “Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath and pushing my own fear of confrontation to the back of my mind. “Please go over there and ask for it back nicely. You could say, ‘I was playing with that. Could I have it back please?’” He toddles over. “Have it back please?” he asks, reaching for the spatula. The other toddler emits another shriek, causing my son (who has not yet learned how to jump) to jump about ten feet in the air and sprint back to my side yelling, “Baby screaming!”

The other mother returns. “Now Hazel (or Susie, or Bethany or Maud),” she says in her best mommy voice, “this little boy was playing with that spatula, will you give it back?” “No!” At this point my son has wandered off. He’s wary of this other child who looks like a cherub but screams like a harpy. He figures he’ll flip his make-believe pancakes with a fake carrot he’s found on the floor. It’s good enough. “Sorry,” says the other mom, drifting away.

But it isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough at all. And it’s exactly what I’ve been dreading. Because while, yes, a spatula and a carrot can, in a pinch, serve the same purpose (particularly when you’re just pretending), a person needs to learn how to stand up for himself.

I allow myself a moment of self-righteous indignation: How am I supposed to teach my kid how to be polite when this other mother (these other mothers) aren’t cooperating? I mean, come on people! Are you so afraid of your kid having a melt-down that you are willing to forgo teaching her good manners? Do you think that, because she’s not quite two, she’s incapable of learning to wait her turn? Not to mention the fact that, now my kid has learned that asking politely gets him nowhere. Which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to teach him. Thanks a lot.

But then I face the facts. Those other mothers, and the kids they’re raising, are out there. As much as I would like to control the situation for my son and show him that, if you’re just polite and stick with it, you’ll get what you want, that isn’t actually true. In his life, time and time again, he’s going to encounter people who are rude, who don’t care, who take things from him and won’t give them back no matter how he chooses to handle it. It would be easy to pretend that my job, as his mom, is just to teach him how to be polite and reasonable. But, if I’m going to be a totally responsible parent, I also need to teach him what to do when politeness and reason don’t work.

So I know what I have to do. I have to go up to that mom and say, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to make your life harder or anything, but your daughter took that spatula away from my son and he’d like it back.” And even though that ought to be enough, it won’t be. She’ll say something like, “I know, I’m sorry, but she’s going to totally freak out if I take it away from her. It looks like your son doesn’t mind.” And then I’ll have to say, “Well, that’s not really the point, it’s the principal of the thing. She took it from him and he asked for it back politely, he should get to have it.”

And then she’ll look at me like I’m a bug that just crawled into her sandwich, and she’ll roll her eyes and give a little huff and then she’ll go over to her daughter and speak to her in honey-sweet tones and offer her a doll if she’ll only give her the spatula. And the kid won’t give up the freaking spatula so they’ll sit there for ten minutes negotiating (because that’s the kind of mom she is) while she intermittently throws nasty looks at me over her shoulder until, finally, the kid relinquishes the spatula and the mom flings it at me and storms off.

So, yeah, that’s what I have to do. Just give me a second.