Parenting Guru: The Horrible Tantrum (That Wasn't What it Looked Like)

Picture this: it's 11:00 at night and you're in the grocery store behind a woman in her early 20s and a toddler. The toddler is throwing herself on the floor and shrieking at the top of her lungs that she wants a lollipop. The woman is coddling the screaming tyke and saying, "I'm so sorry, sweetie, but no lollipops right now." This would be the worst parenting you've ever seen, wouldn't it? Why is a toddler out that late at night? Why isn't the mom firmly telling the kid to stop screaming? What kind of brat would scream like that over a lollipop? And, jeez, why do so many people breed when they're barely old enough to take care of themselves?

Well, if I had seen it, I would have thought it was awful parenting, too, but the fact is that it wasn't. That young woman was me. That screaming toddler was my daughter. And the entire situation wasn't at all what it looked like. Ever since that day, I've realized that public tantrums often aren't what they seem, and I've learned to avoid passing judgment when I see a kid having a tantrum.

I was a single mom at the time. My daughter, then two-and-a-half, had started complaining late in the afternoon, "My ears are sick. My ears hurt, Mama. Make my ears stop hurting." The cries got more and more intense as she pulled at her little ears. The doctor's office was closed, and I knew I'd have to wait until morning to have her seen. After many lullabies and reassuring kisses, I tucked her into bed and I stroked her hair. I soon noticed that her body felt like a furnace, and when I slipped a thermometer into her underarm, it registered at 103.2 degrees. A late-night call to her pediatrician told me to give her some more Tylenol ASAP to bring down her fever. The only problem: I'd given her the last dose we had, just hours before.

I gently shook her awake. She cried out, "My ears are sick! Mama, my ears hurt so bad! My ears are sick!"

I held her close to me and said, "I know. I'm sorry. We're going to go to the store and get some more medicine."

"NO!" she cried, "I don't want to go to the store. I want sleep! I want snuggles! My ears are sick, Mama. My ears are so sick."

"I'll get you a magic lollipop that will make your ears feel better," I pleaded. That settled it. I bundled my fevered toddler into the car seat and drove her to the store with a promise of a lollipop as a reward.

When I got to the store, with my tot still shrieking in a combination of pain, exhaustion, and fevered delirium, I texted my bank account to see how much I had -- just a little over six dollars. The cheapest children's acetaminophen was $5.75 before sales tax. I was already risking an NSF, lollipop or no lollipop. The sucker was going to have to wait. The news that she would, in fact, not be receiving that magical, pain-relieving lollipop I'd promised her made my child burst into an ear-splitting, if understandable, fit of rage.

She cried. She screamed. She flailed. She hit me. Every single person in the store turned and looked at me with a scowl that said that I was the absolute worst parent in the world, and I knew that I sure did look like it. When I got to my car, I burst into tears knowing that not only was my child sick and in pain, but that a dozen strangers were judging me for what, to them, looked like unforgivably bad parenting. But there was a valuable lesson to be learned here: what looks like bad parenting is often just a case of bad luck or bad timing. Reserve your judgments until you really know what's happening in another parent's life.

Have you ever been "that mom?"