Heroic parenting win or just a huge pain in the ass?

My five-year-old daughter shoplifted today.

It’s a January Saturday. I’m feeling crappy and need to puff my inhaler every four hours or I get nasty coughing fits, but I keep forgetting. Hubby has a huge game so it was just me and the kids for a matinee movie, Cub Scouts, the hardware store, and the grocery.

It’s freezing out and I’m admittedly dragging. Hubby hung around this morning because he thought I would want to get in my Saturday morning run, the four- or five-mile loop that is my precious weekly “me-time”.

But today, I passed. My large airways are full of slime and my bronchioles are twitchy. I just needed to get through the day, thanks.

I had promised Babyboy last week that if he was good with school dropoffs and homeworks, we would see this movie as soon as it came out, and so, there we were in the front row for Monster Trucks. The kids always insist on sitting in the very front row for everything. Thank goodness the seats reclined. The movie was perfect for five-through-seven-year-olds, and so, it was a hit with the kids.

Cub Scouts was also a hit: they’re making wooden race cars. Today was carving and sanding, next step is painting. So when we swung by the hardware store, we made sure to pick up acrylic paints.

Our local hardware store has a gumball machine. I hate gumballs. All I can think is “choking hazard”. But the kids love turning the quarter and watching the primary color deathballs spiral down this kinetic sculpture-type contraption, and so, they got gumballs. And me hovering over them demanding that they chew.

At the checkout, Babygirl begged, begged, BEGGED for one of those fancy lollipops, you know, the big round ones with gourmet flavors like “strawberries and cream” that cost two dollars. I said no, reminding her that she’d already had a gumball. Plus, I will not pay two dollars for a lollipop.

I paid for the paints and other stuff and we were on to the last (finally) errand.  I was getting tired of being sick and out and about in the cold, navigating streets and parking lots, getting into the car, buckling buckles over winter coats, getting out of the car, unbuckling the buckles, navigating more streets and more parking lots….

We pulled up to the grocery store and found a decent parking spot, a feat considering the playoff game tonight. I grabbed my purse and just happened to glance down into it.

There it was.

A big round “strawberries and cream” lollipop.

I picked it up and stared at it.

“Where did this come from?” I asked Babygirl.

She was silent.

“Honey, did you take this from the hardware store? Did you slip this into my purse?”

Pause. Then, matter-of-factly: “Yeah. I wanted it.”

Pause. “Honey! We did not pay for this! You can’t just take something without paying for it!”

Her: “But I really wanted it! I really, really wanted a lollipop.”

We were still sitting in the car. I was beat, spent, ill.

The right thing to do, the correct parenting/ teaching/ discipline thing to do, would be to drive all the way back to the hardware store and make her return the goddamned lollipop.

But it would be so, so easy to just confiscate the goods and impose some other punishment.

As we sat there, I had a flashback to forty-odd years ago, and a Rubik’s cube keychain.

I must have been six years old, and I was with my mom. We were in the toy store for some reason. I saw this adorable miniature-but-fully-functional Rubik’s cube on a keychain, and I had to have it.

I begged and begged. But the answer was no.

Of course the cube found its way into my pocket, and of course my mother found it when we got home.

She made me return it.

It must have been a huge pain in the ass to drive back to the mall and walk all the way to the toy store, especially because I’m pretty sure I sobbed, negotiated, and begged for mercy the whole time.

But eventually, I did meekly approach the counter and hand the precious item to the store clerk with a lame admission of guilt: “Um, I accidentally took this. Sorry.”

The clerk was an older lady who gave me a most disapproving look and said (I will never forget): “You know, I could call the police right now.”

Looking back, I’m sure this was a wink-wink effort to reinforce the lesson and be helpful to my mom.

But oh jeez, I was HORRIFIED. Humiliated, contrite, and HORRIFIED.

It was a lesson that stuck, and that probably informs my character today. Totally the right thing to do.

And so, back to the present, and the grocery parking lot. The key went into the ignition, and back to the hardware store we drove. On the way, I explained: “That was stealing, and it is wrong. You need to learn a lesson. You will return the lollipop, and you will apologize. It is not a choice.”

Babygirl kept asking, “Can we just pay for it? Because I really want it.” Babyboy kept asking, “Can I just stay in the car? I already know this lesson.” When we got to the door, Babygirl stopped short and refused to go any further, breaking down into tears, sobbing, “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

This is where things went a little less smoothly from a discipline/ lesson standpoint. The hardware store is a small one, and always busy. People were trying to get in and out of the doorway, and I had this obstinate little sobbing mule-child right in the middle of it.

So I picked her up and carried her to the counter.

The lady who had checked us out was gone, and there were two young men working the registers. There was a line of people, alot of activity. I thought we could catch the eye of one of the clerks and get this overwith without waiting, but after an awkward few minutes with me sending the telepathic message Do you seriously not see us standing here, Bub? we ended up in line.

When it was our turn, the freckled kid greeted us with a smile and asked, “How can I help you?”

I nudged Babygirl, who buried her head in my neck.

I cleared my throat and turned so she couldn’t avoid seeing him, but she shmooshed her face farther into my down coat, murmuring “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

Acutely aware of the shuffling and sniffing shoppers behind us, I snatched the lollipop from her sweaty grip and handed it to the guy, explaining: “She took this without paying, and we’re returning it.”

Babyboy, ever trying to be helpful, chimed in: “She stole it, and she’s learning a lesson. I already know it. I don’t steal things.”

The clerk cracked up. I swear he was about to say, Oh, that’s OK, no big deal, she can have the lollipop, but I knew I would scream if he did, so I cut him off with a curt Thank you and we headed back to the car.

We got through the grocery store and then (thankfully) home. Tonight, I tried to reflect with her:

“Honey, what did you learn today? The whole lollipop thing?”

She was quiet for a bit. Then she said, without looking up: “I never did apologize.”

I thought about this. “You’re right, you did not. I did it for you because people were waiting.” I didn’t know if she was sad that she didn’t apologize, or pleased that she managed to she save face. “If it happens again, honey, you will apologize. Is that clear?”

She nodded. “Yup.”

In the end, I’m not sure if this was a heroic parenting win, or just a huge pain in the ass.


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