|I made a big mistake the other day, one that my
four-year-old Emma and I both paid for.
Our city has a new Aquarium and Botanical Garden, and my friend
MaryAnn and I took our kids. The place was jammed with tourists,
locals, and busload upon busload of school-aged kids several sizes
larger than our own, banging around with the Brownian energy of
billiard balls in a blender.
With our toddlers on our backs and our older ones by the hand,
we worked our way through the lines and went inside. Despite the
noisy, boisterous crowds, with a little judicious worming and
wiggling, our kids were able to see the exhibits. We were all
happy and excited to be there. Twenty-month-old Carita was
interested, eyeing everything from her vantage point high on my
back, but it was Emma who was really cranked up - agog at all the
sea life. She especially loved the crabs, the sharks, and the
scuba diver who fed the spiny lobsters.
Now, the average length of time my little rocketeer spends at
an exhibit is a few microseconds. Boom! She's off, pointing,
shouting, and laughing, coming back to take me by the hand and
show me the new delight she's discovered around the corner. And
boom! She's off again. MaryAnn's three-year-old, Benjamin, on the
other hand, is more laid-back. He likes to take his time, linger
over the exhibits and study everything in detail. Early on,
MaryAnn and I realized we weren't going to be able to stay
together or even find each other in the crowds. We agreed that
we'd reconnoiter out on the open, less crowded plaza.
Sure enough, we soon left MaryAnn and her kids behind. At the
exhibit by the exit, we waited for them a bit, but both girls were
getting restless, hungry, and thirsty. Since I'd rushed out
without assembling a snack, I decided we'd go to the snack bar on
the plaza outside, and buy ice cream and a drink to share.
We ate our mushy, messy chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream and
sipped at some 7-Up. The weather was absolutely fabulous: breezy,
not too warm, with startlingly clear skies. It was fun.
But time stretched on, and we all began to grow restless again.
I was concerned we might have missed our friends. We started
wandering around the plaza. Emma saw a boy with a toy and asked
for one. She was philosophical when I said no; not right now.
And then, after wandering a bit, wondering where MaryAnn and
her kids could be, I made the big mistake. I took the girls into
the gift shop.
Why, you ask, did I take Emma into a shop filled with colorful,
fun, too-expensive toys, after I'd just said she couldn't have
one? I've been wondering that, too.
At least partly, it was exhaustion. I'd been sick and my
husband had been out of town; when I'm run down I rarely have the
mental faculties to string two events together in my head and come
up with a causal link. Perhaps also because I have a magpie nature
- I like to look at pretties, so I was curious. And probably also
because I was bored, myself.
The minute Emma saw the toys, the temptation was too great --
she started asking again, trying to bargain, and she cried, hard,
when I said "no" and tried to offer alternatives. I
knelt down and comforted her, and explained that these toys were
quite expensive -- but that I'd be willing to buy her some
stickers (we'd just run out, and these were the same price as they
are anywhere, unlike the toys). Yes, she wanted the stickers, that
was fine, but she wanted a toy too. I said that, if she was
willing to use her allowance (she gets 75 cents a week to spend as
she pleases), when we got home I'd take her to Wal-Mart and we'd
find a more affordable toy. No, she wanted it right then. (Waiting
is so hard when you're four and totally in the moment.) But after
a while she was able to calm down enough to think it over.
"Okay," she said finally, mollified, still a little
teary but drying her eyes.
As the cashier was ringing up the stickers, Carita got her leg
jammed in the backpack and started fussing. I managed to get the
pack off; set it down; get her foot untangled and buckle her back
in; then I gave the cashier the money; then I struggled to get the
pack back on; meanwhile Emma was excited again, and started
tugging at me to come see something. And right then, through the
open door, I saw MaryAnn pass by across the plaza, heading for the
"Emma," I said, pointing, "There's MaryAnn! Go
to her and tell her we're right here. I'll be right behind
"But, Mom, I need to show you something--"
"Hurry, honey, or we'll miss them!"
Emma went outside, then just stood there outside the door
looking at me with big, fresh tears rolling down her face and a
look of betrayal and anguish in her eyes. I felt my heart would
The cashier handed me change and a bag. I knelt down and held
out my arms and Emma came to me. "I wanted to show you
something special!" she wailed.
I tried to explain that I was afraid we'd miss MaryAnn amid the
crowds, but she just couldn't hear it. She'd found some miniature
papier maché fruit in little cups, inside the case, and all her
mind and being were focused on that. So I went with her, and we
looked at them. I murmured something appreciative, but my mind was
still on MaryAnn.
I then hurried the girls outside, but of course, MaryAnn and
the boys were nowhere in evidence. We headed toward the exit,
where another crowd of school kids had gathered, with me
complaining about the fact that we'd taken the time to look at
something in the store instead of going right out.
My friend's car was still in the parking lot. Which meant she
was wandering around somewhere, back in those crowds, looking for
So saying, I took Emma by the wrist -- not hard, but I'm sure
there was no doubt in her mind that I was very angry -- and we
crossed the street to the parking lot.
"Mommy, you're walking too fast!" she said in a
quavery, scared voice.
Laura, I thought, you're behaving like a real jerk. I knelt
down and hugged her, and tried to explain that I was worried about
not finding MaryAnn. I was hot, cranky, and tired, frankly - and
not looking forward to braving those crowds again. But I couldn't
leave MaryAnn in there looking for us. So we started back.
And, of course, right then, MaryAnn and her two boys walked out
It wasn't till later that I realized I'd been blaming Emma for
the fact that we hadn't been able to find MaryAnn, when after all
it had been my choice to go see the fruit (instead of suggesting,
say, that we'd get MaryAnn and then come back to see it). And
anyway, everything had come out just fine, if not for my temper
tantrum in the parking lot. My apology to Emma at the time had
been hurried, almost cursory, and probably confusing to her. I
felt I owed her more clarity.
So the next morning, while we were cuddling in bed, I said to
her, "When I got mad yesterday, I was blaming you for the
fact that we couldn't find MaryAnn. You were just trying to share
something beautiful and special with me, and I yelled at you. That
was a big mistake, and I'm sorry."
Never have I been so grateful to hear words I've said before
come back to me as I was when she put her little hand on my cheek
and looked at me with those midnight-blue eyes.
"But Mommy," she said seriously, "Mistakes is
how you learn."
You are so right, Emma. You are so right.