I saw the toddler signs: whiny, eye rubbing, pouting. I saw the signs, but I still wanted lunch. And I’m here to let you know that there is such a thing as a free lunch. And it happened right in my hometown.
That afternoon, despite the toddler weariness, I took my just turned three-year-old to my favorite hummus and falafel spot. My toddler seemed game; she was excited to go somewhere other than our kitchen for lunch. We settled into our seats, greeted the waitress, and started deciding on lunch choices.
And then it happened.
A little girl, about to be two, walked by with a babydoll. My daughter LOVES babydolls. She had to touch the babydoll. Her hand reached happily towards the babydoll, and the little girl – as owners of babydolls are wont to do – pulled back and gave a determined “No” as she blocked the hopeful hand.
I explained, “Honey, we ask first if we want to touch someone’s doll.” The parents of the other little girl launched into a back-and-forth of “Honey! She just wants to look at your doll!” We all hoped that was it.
I put in our order, and that’s when I saw the quivering bottom lip, the brimming eyes, the tiny nostrils tensing.
I changed my order to go.
The next ten minutes my daughter clung to me, sobbing quietly and forcing my arms around her into a protective wall. Her feelings were hurt, she said. She thought she’d done something bad. I couldn’t understand most of the sobbing, but I reassured her that it was okay. I told her we’d take our lunch home and eat it while watching Jungle Junction.
While she sniffled, I chatted with the parents: “She’s tired…never like this…the same with her toys.” All true. All sincere. All an attempt to alleviate their discomfort as we all waited awkwardly for our food.
The babydoll girl’s parents were also apologetic, and they scolded their daughter mildly for making the “other girl” cry. They attempted to convince their daughter to share the doll, or at least apologize. Have you ever tried to get a two-year-old to apologize as digs in her heels?
It was a vicious circle of parental apology. I felt bad that they felt guilty. They felt horrible that my daughter was sobbing and clinging to my neck. It was a whole vicariously guilty mish-mash.
We parents with small children have incorporated an “I’m so sorry I tried to eat lunch out with my child” attitude. So much so that here I was, in a casual eatery, trying to quell the mortification of parents who shouldn’t have felt bad. And they were so nice! And so was I!
To bring it back to my free lunch: I asked the waitress for my bill when she brought my food. And what had those guilt-ridden parents done? They’d paid it for me. So unnecessary. And it’s exactly what I would have done had we been in opposite positions. See what guilt will do?
I didn’t argue – I’m working on accepting kindness in kind, without minimizing the gift or the giver. I said thank you, re-iterated that it was totally unnecessary, and told them I would do the same when my daughter makes someone else’s child cry. And she will.
If you’re lucky, it’ll be your kid, and I’ll buy you lunch.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Barista Kids.