One Christmas Eve, when my son was 18 months old and my daughter 3 months old, I made the questionable decision to go to Target to pick up some last-minute things. I’ll fully admit that I was insane to go to the epicenter of panic and chaos alone with a toddler and baby—I blame lack of sleep—but I had no other choice.

After a mile-long line, I finally reached the checkout, needing about eight more arms to help unload the cart, swipe my debit card, soothe the crying baby, and wrangle a very active toddler who wanted to touch everything. At some point, said toddler escaped and wandered over to the checkout next to us, and, without being detected, managed to shut off the register. Did I mention the salesperson had just completed ringing up an order? Or that the order was for a very agitated woman with two carts full of products? Or that they had to go to another checkout lane and start over while the system rebooted in the lane my son had stealth attacked? Or that the entire line of people in said checkout had to go to the back of new lines?

Let’s just say that the dirty looks I received are burned permanently into my soul. I apologized profusely, finished up as fast as I could and rushed to my car where I hoped to escape the shame and embarrassment drowning me. I wish I could say this was a unique event, but it wasn’t.

To describe my son as “active”  is like saying Game of Thrones is mildly violent. His boundless energy was coupled with a headstrong personality, which he revealed only hours after birth. He refused to nurse for almost two weeks, no matter what I did. In those 10 days he broke me and taught me one of the biggest lessons as a parent: We may create these children, but from the moment they enter this world, they are their own people with their own way of doing things.

This brings me back to behavior. For the first 3 years or so of his life, I poured endless energy trying to harness my son—even more so in public. I read about behavioral issues and ADHD and tried every discipline technique in the book. Instead of walking, he ran. He had to TOUCH everything. And if you tried to stop him, he would have a Three Mile Island-level meltdown. It was a very sweaty period in my life.

Stores were the worst—oftentimes the carts were only for one kid, which meant my daughter, and when there was room for him, he would howl and shriek until I bribed him with food or let him down. Letting him down was always a mistake. I vowed never to leave the house with him again on many occasion.

But containing him wasn’t the worst part. That was dealing with the stares and comments from other people, other parents in particular. If I had a quarter for every time someone told me, “You really have your hands full,” when my son acted up, I’d be writing this from a spa in Hawaii.

And then one day I had a conversation with another mom that made me feel infinitely better. Talking about her second daughter who was incredibly challenging and prone to acting out in public, she confided that she used to judge parents whose kids were running around or misbehaving. Her oldest was well behaved, and she credited it to her parenting skills. “I thought I had done everything right and that I was a better parent,” she confessed. Her second, more difficult child erased all that confidence. “Now I’m the one being judged,” she says.

And that’s the point. Most parents at some point and time feel like they’re being judged, but those of us whose kids are “rambunctious” or who have little ones with serious behavior problems, we feel that way every time we leave the house. And it sucks.

Parents today are chided for coddling their kids, for trying to be their friends instead of their disciplinarian—and I agree wholeheartedly that that can be the case in some households—but when a child misbehaves or acts of control in public, there’s no way of knowing as an outsider whether that parent is overly permissive or if it’s the kid’s wiring. If it’s the latter, you better believe that that parent doesn’t need your judgment—they’ve probably spent a lifetime trying to figure out what they’ve done wrong or could do better. They need sympathy, support, maybe even help.

I lucked out. My son has mellowed as he’s gotten older. He hasn’t shaken his headstrong nature, but he does listen better and knows how to behave in public. My husband and I talk about his early years as if we were platoon buddies—both of us are covered in grey hair as a result of it. But looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. My son humbled me, for which eternally grateful, and he taught me so much about myself and the world—which includes, at all cost, avoiding stores on Christmas Eve.

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