How Do You Handle Unhelpful Strangers?

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Dear Miriam,

The other day after day care, my 2-year-old was having a tantrum on the sidewalk about not wanting to walk to the car. A stranger stopped and said to her, “You better get up. Santa is coming.” What is the appropriate response to such an inappropriate comment?

Signed,

Jewish mom with enough on her hands

Dear Mom,

Having been on the receiving end of more irrelevant, insensitive, inane and disruptive comments from strangers than I could ever count, I always wonder what the strangers hope to accomplish. Do they think their comments might stop the tantrum? That you might actually appreciate having another adult intervene? That they are asserting their own superiority by trying something you haven’t thought of before?

I have no idea, but I do know that unless the comment is, “Is there anything I can do to help,” it’s always utterly useless and, even then, it’s touchy whether I want anyone to acknowledge me during an already unpleasant situation.

As tempting as it may be to turn your frustration back at the stranger, there’s not much to be accomplished there either. If you have it in you to ignore the person, do it wholeheartedly. If the person won’t go away or you feel like you can’t let the egregiousness go, say something along the lines of, “We’re fine, thanks,” and then go back to your child. If your tactic is also to ignore the tantrum behavior, it’s possible to ignore a toddler and a stranger simultaneously.

Even if a family does celebrate Christmas, I can’t imagine that a threat about Santa from a stranger would be particularly helpful. I have no data points to confirm or deny this, although knowing that people take their kids to sit on Santa’s lap presumably brings with it an expectation that Santa knows what you’re up to. Even so, knowing a lot more about tantrums than I do about Santa, I still can’t imagine a screaming 2-year-old being influenced mid-sidewalk scream by someone else’s nosiness.

So much of parenting is about modeling the behaviors you want to see in your child. Even if ignoring people if not your general style of human relationship, showing your child that you don’t have to answer inappropriate comments is actually an important skill. Showing restraint and patience in difficult circumstances is pretty vital, too.

Finally, this is a good reminder that at some point, if it hasn’t happened already, your child will ask you about Santa. My stock answer is, “Some people who celebrate Christmas believe that someone named Santa brings them presents. We know that isn’t true, but it’s important not to tell other kids that because it might be important to their family.”

I’m not saying this answer is perfect, but I am saying that you ought to figure out an answer now so that if, by some Christmas miracle, next time this happens, your child stops screaming to say, “Who’s Santa?” at least you’ll be prepared.

Be well,

Miriam

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