Too Fun to Leave — Not Fair!

Too Fun to Leave — Not Fair!

Is it fair to put kids in difficult situations and then expect them to behave?

Here's what Leigh from Albany asked:

My older son (who is 4) was dazzled by the bookstore. We had never been there before. We went because there was a story time, but he was way too amped to sit for the story. We went with a friend who has a son my younger son’s age (19 months old).


My older son ran around the store (I kept him away from the group of children and parents quietly listening to the story so we weren’t disruptive), and after story time was over and the kids were gone, he pulled all the huge stuffed animals from their various spots around the room and piled them in the middle of the story time spot. I chose not to stop him, and we were “spoken to” when he started jumping on them (they were for sale, and not cheap). 


I let him know we were not buying anything, and I talked to him about how great the things were that he wanted to buy, and that I understood why it was hard to leave them behind. He didn’t melt down until it was time to leave (after we were spoken too, I knew it was time to go even though our younger boys were playing quietly), and I tried to redirect him about how exciting it would be to ride the elevator back to the ground floor, and how we were going to the library next. I honestly can’t remember, just two days later, what I said. 


What I remember most is that I didn’t lose my cool. It didn’t get to me. I remember thinking it was not embarrassing, it was just a natural part of going out with a 4-year-old in a store loaded with goodies, and we moved on. He was much better at the library, where there’s a children’s room with things he’s allowed to touch. He’s also been there before.


I want to avoid the bookstore now, because I think it’s unfair to put my kids in difficult situations and then expect them to behave. My husband thinks we should go to the store again and again so my 4-year-old has the chance to practice appropriate bookstore behavior. I see the value in this — how can he learn to behave in a given situation if he never has the opportunity to practice? It would be better if it was just him and me, or just his father and him, and not me alone with the two kids. Fortunately my friend kept an eye on my younger son while I was chasing my older son around the store.

Answer: Wow! Several gems in what you wrote, especially that you didn't lose your cool or feel embarrassed! You are way ahead of the game there. Plus you can see the allure of a mountain of stuffed animals to a child. On some level, you might've wanted to get right in there and roll around, too! That's seeing the child's point of view.

It sounds like the catch for you is the feeling that it's unfair to put a child into a store "full of goodies" and then say he has to leave them behind before he is done. Your son can't help but pick up on your feeling that it's not fair and play that out for you. Notice the difference in his ability to accept your boundary about not buying anything versus leaving this great new wonderland of toys. If "not buying something" doesn't feel particularly unfair to you, that boundary would be easy for you to stand behind, but since taking a child to wonderland and expecting him to control himself and leave willingly does feel unfair to you (your hot button), that boundary would be a struggle for you to support.

Kids can tell when our boundaries are not OK with us. The struggle over leaving behind all those goodies was probably the same struggle you were having over the boundary itself — it felt unfair! See the difference?

Kids have radars for fairness and will stand up for it to the point of tantrum if we don't. No elevator will fix that! A CAN DO like setting up a running course at home ending in a pile of stuffed animals, pillows, etc. for jumping in probably would have worked much better...which is exactly the kind of thing the child comes up with when you validate why he wanted to stay so badly and turn the problem-solving over to him by saying:

"Must be something you can do like this at home."

If he can't think of anything, he may need to hear more, so you would need to find a boundary and CAN DO that does feel fair to you. That way you could take the struggle over fairness out of it for you both and try it again with more validation and saying the "unsaid" about fairness. Something like this maybe:

"It doesn't feel fair to have to leave all these goodies (notice how you want to nod in agreement?), AND stores and their toys aren't for running and jumping on without permission, even though they are the most fun in the world! Look at the saleslady's face. No permission there! Hmmm. Must be someplace you have permission to run around and jump onto a pile of soft things. Maybe at home...we've got a yard, or you've got a room. When we get home you can set up an obstacle course and end it with a big jump into a pile of all your stuffed animals, pillows..."

Finding a way for you to see your boundaries as fair is important because otherwise, you are basically asking yourself to say, "It's time to go now. Leave happily, and don't you dare stand up for what's fair!" This is where parent coaching crosses into personal coaching.

"Not fair" is actually your growth point, and can become your child's until you get to the bottom of it for yourself. "Not fair" is actually a common point of view, not a hard reality, and one that we pick up in childhood when something really important to us feels unfair and nobody validates that. They just said, "stiff upper lip," like it shouldn't matter that something was not fair. We carry unvalidated feelings with us as 'life lessons', then pass them on to our children who are more than willing to pick up the fight for us...the fight to get heard and validated.

Validating our children's frustrations in the moment helps us move through our own issues ourselves.

So if your husband does not have a hot button around fairness in a bookstore, his approach will work for him. Sounds like you don't like the idea of not being able to go back either, so if you can find a way to see "bookstore behavior" as fair in a bookstore, then you can take him back yourself, one-on-one as you said.

If it's too difficult for you, it's also OK to take him to the library and start there. The place doesn't matter as much as his ability to succeed does. I call it "Success Training." Kids learn their STRENGTHs best by success (and so do we), so when you can set up a success and point out the STRENGTH of "self-control" or "bookstore behavior" or "checking for permission" or "considerate" or "responsible," etc, the child identifies with it and does more of it out of pride in self. That's internally centered growth and what we want for our children.

If you try the bookstore training again, you will need to start by validating that he is right that you let him do things before that you have since realized the sales staff didn't like or that were against the rules of the store, because he will remember the store as he last experienced it and think that's OK. You can even say:

"Must be something we (since you will be involved) can do to find out what will be OK with them next time we go back, so we will know their rules and can decide if we want to stay."

This will side-step the "fairness" issue and put you into practical decision mode where if he thinks he wants to try "bookstore behavior" he can try it, and when he wants to run you can leave. You can go out for running, and back in for listening or reading, then out for running, and back in for reading, etc. Not as punishment, but to establish that he knows the difference between "bookstore behavior" and regular behavior and that he knows what he needs. That makes his first level of training more about recognizing his needs and letting you know. When he gets that, he can move up to controlling his behavior step by step, success by success.


  1. Angela Johnson |

    I guess I don’t really think it’s fair that my 11-year-old has to feel different from his friends because of our food and screen-time/technology choices, even though I feel strongly about the reasons for those choices. It makes sense that he would feel my ambivalence and jump on it. I’m wondering how I can offer him more ways to be like his friends without crossing my boundaries…

  2. That’s CAN DO thinking, Angela. Firm on boundaries and flexible on CAN DOs!

    When you validate that it’s OK for him to want to be more like his friends, he will be able to solve the problem better than you will. Then all you need to do is act as referee, “That’s OK with me,” or “That’s not OK with me. Must be something else you can do.”

    Thanks for sharing your comment!

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