What is it about walking through the hallowed doors of Target that causes even the most mild-mannered child to flip the switch to “self-destruct”? As a first-time mom, I hated when people interfered as my child threw tantrums in stores. Every pride button in me went off when a motherly woman tried to calm the child flailing in my cart. Did she really think she could handle this child better than I? How dare she judge my parenting!?
Slowly, though, I noticed something miraculous. After a kind word from a stranger, my child transformed before my eyes. Our store presence changed from full-on exorcism ritual to a mid-90s family sitcom (cue emotional background music). I began to pursue these interactions with the zeal of a mother wanting to see just one more clearance endcap. Any friendly, motherly woman became fair game. I nonchalantly rolled down her aisle with my howling infant, praying she would take pity and offer a gift of baby talk or toe tickling. It’s a cheap trick, but desperation makes you do funny things.
I’ve seen this concept played out culturally in other places as well. Life takes community. Parenting takes community. I spent a summer in the Middle East more than 10 years ago and saw a beautiful example of communal child-rearing. Walking through the markets, young raced through the crowds, protected, directed, and teased by locals. I climbed aboard a public bus and within minutes was handed a toddler and some candy.
Hospitality meant you were family, and families raise children together.
We live in a society that is knee deep in the “mommy wars.” Everyone thinks he or she is raising his or her child best and is quick to point out when someone else is doing it “wrong.” I think we can learn something from these toe-tickling, sweet-talking saints, graciously calming children everywhere.
The other day, I was in line at a grocery store. A woman was wrestling her three children, barely keeping it together at the checkout. Another woman, seemingly unknown to any of them, approached and began to play with the youngest child. Peace settled in as the magic of distraction and affection took hold. The mother finished paying for her groceries and the good Samaritan went about her business.
A parallel idea was discussed by journalist Lulu Miller on the podcast, Invisibilia. In a little town in Belgium, people with mental illnesses are welcomed into townspeople’s homes rather than institutionalized and medicated. Families of the mentally ill struggled to live with these relatives because they had so much invested in their well-being. Ultimately, these strangers were better healers because they had less at stake in whether or not their boarders improved.
They let those needing support simply “be,” which eased the tension that often escalated their behaviors.
This is why I welcome, even seek out, the friendly interventions of fellow shoppers. These strangers have no real interest in whether or not I finish my chores. They are not concerned about embarrassment. Nor are they crumbling under the pressure of mommy guilt. That’s why it works so well! They ease the tension and distract all of us. My children forget they are trapped in a tiny cage of rolling misery, and I get a moment to remember why I love being their mom.
Beyond making my shopping trips more enjoyable, these interactions teach my children important life lessons. I want them to recognize others notice their behavior and choices. I want them to understand that the ideal of “me first” has a ripple effect on the people with whom they come in contact.
In a world where social tensions are rising, I want them to know that community, kindness, and mutual respect are vital for peace.
Someday, when I have officially passed through the sleep-deprived social awkwardness of young motherhood, maybe I can teach them these things on a larger scale. Until then, you’ll find me shamelessly stalking mother-figures everywhere through the aisles of Target.