He threw a tantrum. She ignored him.

If a child has a fit in the parking lot and his mother doesn't react, did he really have a fit at all?

A boy and his tantrum.
(Image credit: Derek Shapton/Masterfile/Corbis)

I saw a woman leaving the YMCA recently with a baby strapped to her chest. She had a second, slightly larger baby in a stroller. And she had a tantrum-throwing three-year-old holding her hand. She was infested with small children. I couldn't help but stare.

How in the world are they going to make it to their car, I wondered. How is she going to cross the great abyss between where she is right now and bedtime?

The three-year-old was trying to make a scene. I say "trying to make a scene" because he was waging war against his mother, and she was refusing to participate. With a steady gait and an even expression, she ignored him.

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It was the most spectacular moment in parenting I have ever seen. This woman, who I imagine lives in a shoe, should teach a seminar.

The three-year-old kept saying "You're so mean to me," over and over again. I tried to think back to all of the things I would have said in this situation when I had toddlers to defend myself against. "I'm mean??" I would have started. "You're the one who..." But this mother said nothing. And without a reaction from his mother, this kid was firing blanks.

He tried a new approach. "I'm freezing. I don't even have any pockets." To which his mother calmly responded, "Oh, that's too bad. You should have brought a jacket with pockets." There was not a hint of sarcasm in her voice. She said this in the tone you would use to say, "I think I'm going to wear my blue sweater today." The cold weather was not going to turn into an emotionally charged subject either.

Here before me was a new existential question of parenting: If a child has a fit in the parking lot and his mother doesn't react, did he really have a fit at all?

Pound for pound, a small child has more power in a public place than an adult. Small children have a tremendous advantage over the rest of us in that they are loud and they are not self-conscious. It's a lethal combination. A temper tantrum at home can be tuned out. A temper tantrum on a full flight cannot.

For this reason, I bow my head out of respect when I encounter a two-year-old on an airplane. No one outside the cockpit has more control over how this flight's going to go than this pretty little creature with the Hello Kitty backpack. I smile at her panicked parents in solidarity. They try not to make eye contact, embarrassed because we are about to find out what a beast their child is. I pray that they're armed with markers, snacks, and Benadryl.

A child hurling himself on the floor of the cereal aisle of the grocery store is exposing our worst insecurities to the eyes of strangers. Those eyes might actually be sympathetic or amused, but in them we only see confirmation of the truth we've suspected all along: We're pretty much doing everything wrong. It was downright reckless of them to let us leave the hospital with a baby. Chances are we've ruined him already, so we might as well just give him the Froot Loops.

The key to our parking lot heroine's success is that she was decidedly not self-conscious. She was aware that I had stopped in my tracks to watch this scene, riveted. But in the same way that she wasn't going to hand her power over to her three-year-old, she wasn't going to hand it over to me either. If I could go back in time and give my young-mother self one quality, it would be that ability to hold on to my power.

As they got in the car, the child threatened, "When we get home I'm going to my room!" His mother replied, "I think that's a wonderful idea."


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