Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Brat

I broke a cardinal rule this week. I spoke sternly to someone else's child, in public, in front of his mother.

It happened when I went into Target to buy some clothes for a trip this week. A family entered the dressing room area -- a young mother and her two sons, Tristan and Riley.

How do I know their names, you ask? Because she must have said them 500 times in a span of a few minutes. Despite some relatively demonic behavior, Mom handled her children with patience, kindness...and absolutely no backbone. I need to caveat all of this with some level of exoneration for five-year-old Tristan. He behaved slightly better than his older brother, and even when he acted out, he clearly just replicated a type of behavior that seemed to work pretty well for Riley.

Riley. What a boy. This kid, probably seven or eight years old, spent the better part of 15 minutes flat-out yelling at his mother. He acted like a creton.

He spoke to his mother like a dog. "Mommy, I will NOT...Mommy, I'm NEVER doing this AGAIN...Mommy, I will NOT wear these...Mommy, come HERE...NOW." Over and over and over. (Talk about birth control...)

These were not the pleas of a four-year-old who doesn't have the maturity to cope with conflicting interests -- this child had learned to talk to his mother this way. Even little children who have a temper tantrum do it with a desperation that suggests they know who's really boss. Not Riley, he controlled the situation like a champ. As for Tristan, you would've thought his mother stood hitting his palms with a cane rather than asking him to try on a pair of pants. Tristan whined, but Riley demeaned and shouted like a drill sergeant. (Believe me, I know exactly what a command voice sounds like, and I wasn't at all surprised when I saw his dad wearing a military t-shirt a few minutes later.)

I couldn't believe this woman didn't stand up for herself.  She just took the abuse, cajoling and pampering the boys, sighing in exasperation every few seconds.

They left the dressing room, as did I, but a few minutes later we both returned with new finds. Tristan sat quietly in the cart, while Riley stood berating his mother again.

I couldn't help myself: I had to say something.

In a quiet, controlled but very stern voice, I said, "You know, Riley, your mother has been very patient and nice to you today, and you weren't talking to her very nicely at all. I can tell she's really good to you."

I even tried making the "big boy" comparison to a younger child. "I bet you didn't notice that there was a little girl who came through the dressing room right after you, and she was a lot younger. But I didn't hear her crying or fussing or yelling at her mother."

Trying to appeal to his sense of grown-up-ness didn't exactly work. His fight-or-flight reaction dictated that he respond in open defiance to me, feigning apathy with mom looking on. "I don't care," he said, but there was none of the commanding confidence of before. Though my words lacked profundity, and I offered no "zinger" to put him in his place, I detected a little quaver -- just a hint of fear -- that a stranger was correcting him.

"Well," I said. "That's too bad, because nice boys don't behave that way, and I think you should be much nicer to your mommy."

My rebuke was short-lived, and my body shook both with irritation and the acute sense that I might possibly get flogged by his parents for saying something, but I just couldn't resist. In the end, though, Mom must've been okay with it -- probably since I focused on his disrespect of her instead of his pure Satanic qualities -- because she didn't say a word to me about it.