Dear Rachel,

I am having an incredibly hard time with my preschooler and I am starting to think I have the worst-behaved child in the world. Yesterday I had a doctor's appointment and then had to go to the grocery store. Granted, it was a long and hot day, but while at the store, he wanted a candy and I told him he couldn't have it. He hadn't eaten lunch yet and I didn't want him having sugar. He started screaming so loudly that people began staring. I couldn't get him to quiet down and I didn't want to give him the candy after I told him "no." The entire time we stayed in the store he screamed and it was the worst experience. What is wrong with my child?

Aggravated Mom

Dear Aggravated Mom,

There is no question that the preschool age is a challenging one. Children at this age are old enough to have a basic understanding of right and wrong, and usually too young to be able to rationalize with. Yet, in the case you describe above, your child doesn't seem to be the real problem. And I don't think there is anything wrong with your child. Even more so, I think you will find, if looking at the situation through a different lens, much of this could have been avoided.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that when something bothers us in another person, we are usually looking in the mirror. When it comes to parenting, this is especially true. Often we get upset or angry with our children for something they did, but is often a result of a situation we put them in. And when a child is having a fit, it is easier to think that something might be wrong with the child than to figure out what is wrong with how I am parenting right now.

Let's go through your day and see how things could have been done differently. You write that you had an appointment. I am not sure if your child needed to go with you or if he could have stayed with a babysitter, but if it is not an appointment for him, you may want to consider not bringing him.

Who likes an appointment? There is waiting for the doctor, then the appointment itself - not exactly a fun-filled activity for a kid. Necessary perhaps, but not fun. But being that you did bring him with you, your outing should have ended there. Bringing him on an errand, on a hot and long day, really wasn't fair to him.

Most likely he was also hot, tired and would have preferred an air-conditioned room to play in, than to be strapped into a grocery cart. And then, once he was, he was denied the very treat he wanted. Now, generally speaking, I do agree with you that a treat before lunch is not a great idea. However, in this case, an exception might have been made.

Perhaps he was hungry. You can't take a hungry child to the store and then expect him to behave. Had he eaten first, I imagine he would have been more manageable and might not have thrown a tantrum in the store. I am assuming that it was more convenient for you to stop at the store on the way home, but if that was the case, then a treat would have been a good reward for being schlepped around.

Now once he had his tantrum, it was clear you weren't going to get him to stop on his own. At that point, you again had a choice. You could have given in and handed him a treat, along with an explanation that you were making an exception and that treats are usually only for after the meal. Or, if you did not want to go back on your word, then you needed to leave the store right then and there.

A tantrum is a child saying, or more appropriately screaming, "Give me attention!" He was trying to get his point across that he wasn't happy and by keeping him in the store, you were indicating that his feelings didn't matter that much to you. It seems that the store just pushed him over the edge, for after all, he was: 1. tired, 2. hungry, 3. just at an appointment. Granted, leaving the store early would have meant not finishing all your shopping, but it would have saved your child and yourself (not to mention the other customers) a lot of aggravation. His screaming should have been followed by a dart to the shortest checkout line and a straight drive home.

To avoid this situation in the future, when you plan your day, ask yourself a few key questions:

  1. Does my child need to come with me wherever I am going? If not, consider having someone watch him while you go out.
  2. Will my errands cause him to miss a nap or meal? If so, make sure to bring food and a stroller for him to eat and nap while you are out.
  3. What, during my errands, will be something that my child will enjoy? Make sure to schedule in time for a quick stop at a playground or the toy store or even a cold drink or Slurpy on a hot day.
  4. Can my errands be lessened or pushed off for a better time? Three stores you need may be right next to one another, but a happy child will save you much more time than it will take to go back another day to the other stores.

I think you will find that with a little better planning, you will have a much more agreeable child. And there is no question that a happier child will result in a happier mother! Best wishes for easier grocery store experiences in the future!