An illustration of a mother with a child having a meltdown surrounded by caring and judgmental eyes.

“Please be a good girl. Please be a good girl.”

I didn’t know the woman quietly and desperately repeating this phrase recently at a local Target. But I sure knew her situation — trying to calmly and discreetly coax her toddler to cease a freakout already in progress.

Just five minutes earlier I’d walked pass them at the entrance, as the cherubic blond angel was adorably crawling into a cart. But somewhere between the door and the women’s T-shirt section, things had taken a quick turn towards a tantrum, and the cherub had transformed into a tiny ball of rage. I don’t know if this was a sudden fit or just part of a really bad day. I did know how the mother was likely feeling: helpless, exposed and watched and judged by strangers.

But she was trying. And doing a good job. So I told her so. I could be intruding and making it worse, but I decided that a positive word in passing would help. And I think I did the right thing.

“She needed to hear that,” confirmed Dr. Kristi Phillips, a psychologist at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Child and Family Therapy Clinic. “I have a three-year-old at home, so this story hits close to home. It’s a big help to not have other people judge you.”

Parenting is, at its core, an emotionally unpredictable enterprise. Doing it in public ratchets up the unpredictability, not only because it’s a different environment than at home, but because there are other people there.

“In that moment, we’re feeling like we’re not doing a good job, and someone giving you a glare reinforces your failure,” Phillips said. “Having someone let you know that you’re doing a great job? You just need to hear that.”

I don’t know one parent who can’t tell you a story about being stared at in a grocery store when their kid loses it, or even having someone scold them for how they think they’re handling it. It’s tempting to curse them out. You can’t — even when you’re desperate to.

For parents in the thick of a tantrum, Phillips says that comes with the territory. Just accept it.

“When that happens to me, I’m trying to think about the best way to diffuse the situation and make it easier for the child,” Phillips said. “I know people will look. I know it’s going to happen. You should expect to have a meltdown at Target at some point.”

When my own son was six months old, we took him to his first brunch, which he mostly slept through. But a woman at a nearby table glared at me over her mimosa every time he even moved. When he woke up, I grabbed him and took him outside for a walk. But in her mind, I was guilty of bad parenting just by bringing him there in the first place with the possibility of him crying, and it felt terrible.

This reminded me of an allegedly heartwarming story of a mother on an international flight who handed out 200 gift bags to other passengers with a note pre-apologizing in case her infant cried too much. Some people though it was sweet, but it made me angry that this woman, already flying alone with a baby, felt she had to print out 200 notes, package them and then lug them onto a plane. She needed understanding, not a craft project.

“She was recognizing how it can be having a little baby on a flight, and needing to set it up to make it less impactful for the other people,” Phillips said. “But I also appreciate the perspective that the mother shouldn’t have to worry about that. Everyone doesn’t have that same amount of empathy.”

But after more than two years of COVID, more of us should. Many people were sequestered inside for months, and had to be reintroduced to being out in public. It was hard enough for adults, but for kids, many of whom were very young at the start of quarantine, they don’t know how to act.

“A lot of the times, we’re seeing these kids coming to Target for the first time in their lives, when 10 years ago, it would have been their 20th or 30th,” Phillips said. “For myself, I’ve sat outside a restaurant with my daughter, working on reinforcing her and helping her build confidence. ”

We don’t know how individual parents are working on these skills, but the wrong way to help is unsolicited scolding, even if you think you’re helping, she said.

So how should the beleaguered parent respond to this “helpful” person without choosing violence? “I think you could say ‘I appreciate your help, but I’m going to take it from here,’” Phillips said.

Phillips adds that we don’t know the lives of the families we encounter in the produce aisle or at the zoo, and that even when you’re being supportive, “they might not take it the same way you meant it to come across.”

But if you think it might be helpful to drop a quick word of encouragement as you walk by, or even shoot a thumbs-up, it could make a parent’s day.

“It’s really positive to have someone else notice your hard work, because we’re all putting in the hard work as parents,” she said. “It’s helpful to have someone else see that.”

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