Here’s an interesting fact about me: I work in retail, in a gigantic ultra-store. It’s pretty good, actually. I get to help nice people with some very specific problems, which is a good way to spend a day. I also work alongside decent sorts, and the company isn’t a rank bastard. My day is generally full of lovely people.
I also get to people-watch, which is tremendous fun. Sometimes I see people being adorable, which goes against my instinctive opinions about the general public. Sometimes I see people being parents, and that’s always inspiring to me as a fellow breeder, because some parents are brilliant, and I can always do with picking up tips on how to be better. Most parents are average, and that’s cool too. Average is fine. I’m totally average.
But occasionally – very occasionally – I see parents being less than stellar, and this is fun too (though not for their families). Because that’s when I get to be judgmental.
Oh, come on. Don’t judge me for being judgmental (even though that is somewhat hypocritical of me to demand this). I like being judgmental. I can look upon people and decide whether they deserve to exist. Being judgmental is FUN! On the whole – and this surprised me – most parents I see in shops are pretty good. They engage with their kids, they all look like they’re having a fun day out (even though shopping is not always a fun activity), and they show respect for one another. I aspire to be like that. Sometimes the kids misbehave, and some parents deal with it pretty well. Sometimes the parents say to the kids, “If you don’t behave, the man over there will come and tell you off”, to which I long to say: Hey, don’t drag me into your shit. I’m not the head of discipline here. Kid, go nuts.
And then there are the parents who misbehave – and believe me, when parents misbehave, it’s worse than the kids. Sometimes it’s a snarky giggle to observe.
Occasionally it’s disturbing.
Before we go any further, I’d just like to point out that I am totally capable of being an absolute arse-cleft when shopping. I don’t always measure up. I’ve had all the classic bad-father-in-shopping-centre-stupidity moments. I have whined. I have slumped and sulked in frustration like a teenager. I’ve urged Sarah to get a bloody move on. I’ve had choices presented to me, and I’ve shrugged and said “whatever…” because I actually want to go home. I have had rows. I’ve stomped off angrily in the opposite direction when I didn’t get my way. I’ve got irritable when shopping has gone on for far too long. I’ve had grown-man tantrums in public. I’ve lost my temper. I’ve snapped at my beloveds.
Here’s a specific moment of crap shop-parenting so that you can judge me for a bit: I once got fed up of Alice (aged 5 at the time) running around screaming in a large shop and refusing to calm down. So I grabbed her by the arm to try and arrest her momentum. Unfortunately, the thing I grabbed was the hood of her anorak, which was fastened up to the neck. Alice stopped all right, with an “hw’erk!” of strangulation, and she fell hard onto her coccyx.
Oh God. Throttling your child is apparently a big parenting no-no. So there I was, in a busy shop, trying to comfort my now-weeping child (and, rather despicably, doing that thing where one apologises for bad behaviour, and simultaneously attempts to justify that poor behaviour like a complete prick) in front of dozens of witnesses. I heard at least one tut. Not my finest moment ever.
So now we’ve got my poor parenting out of the way, let me assuage my guilt by telling you all about some of the shite families I have witnessed as both a shopper and a shop worker.
The Red Bull Incident:
I once witnessed a parent with a small child in tow. The child couldn’t have been older than seven years old, and was drinking from a 350ml can of Red Bull with a straw. Now, I’m a drinker of Red Bull when I need to be, but it is foul and disgusting. Also, I really don’t think a small child should be drinking that much caffeine and taurine, particularly through the direct-injection of a straw. I currently have an empty can of the stuff on my desk in front of me (which I really should put in the bin) and it very clearly says ‘not recommended for children‘ in bold writing.
Anyhoo, the parent had clearly not read this instruction, or didn’t care, and had given the rather massive can to the kid in order to shut them up with sugary chemicals, and was blithely unaware of the shitstorm that I was sure was about to be unleashed. To my immense schaudenfreude, my prophecy came true half an hour later. I was walking through a further bit of the store and witnessed what could only be described as a screaming blur dressed in the same clothes as the child I had seen earlier. That same Red Bull-sucking child had gone feral, and was thrashing around, screaming his head off. The parent was remonstrating with the poor kid, and actually had the nerve to wail “Why are you being like this??”
It’s because you’ve given your child their entire pre-teen allowance of caffeine in just 20 minutes, and now they’re so wired you need to strap them down. You halfwit.
I once saw a family walking through a store. The parents were a little way ahead. The kids (a brother and sister, approx 11 and 9 years old) were behind. The brother was pushing the trolley, and the sister was hanging on to the front of the trolley, her feet on the frame. There was a sibling argument going on, and the parents were dealing with this by telling them to pack it in by snarling over their shoulders without turning round. The children then escalated their war. The brother attempted to dislodge his sister by shoving the trolley back and forth very hard. The sister held on admirably, and tried to work her way up the side of the trolley to clout him. I was on her side; he was being a whiny little twat.
He then went up to a protruding corner wall and tried to use it to scrape his sister off the side of the trolley. She yelled in pain as she was crushed against the point of the corner. At that point, the father wheeled round, marched up to them both and castigated his daughter for being noisy, while the son smirked in victory. The look of disbelief on her face and her vocal outrage at the injustice of it all still haunts me two years on.
“If you don’t shut up NOW, I’ll SMASH YOUR FUCKING FACE IN” – Man to his female partner in front of their children, leaving her looking shocked and afraid, presumably because she had the nerve to take him shopping on a Saturday. Lovely chap, I’m sure.
Shoving Kids in Trollies:
As a parent, and a trained first-aider, what really gets my goat is other parents putting their kids in the trolley. I’m not talking about the little fold-out seat designed for under-fives, but actually standing up in the basket of the trolley itself. The potential for an accident is massive. All sorts of things could happen, but typically, the trolley would collide into something and the unrestrained kid then smashes into the wire basket.
I attended an incident just like this two days ago. You do not want to see a two-year-old with a lump the size of an egg on their forehead. It’s horrible. And enough of my fellow in-store first-aiders have plenty of jolly anecdotes about smashed teeth and gushing bloody noses, all because some parents would rather their child not undergo the inconvenience of walking.
I’ve never let Alice stand in the basket of a trolley, despite her asking. Her legs are fine, and it wouldn’t hurt her to use them. I’d rather she was complaining of sore feet than complaining about being in A&E.
Incidentally, first-aiding is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I recently did the course. It’s worth doing, if only to scare yourself rigid, to hear the most horrific first-hand accounts of dreadful incidents, and to have a responsibility that weighs heavily on your shoulders every time you arrive at work for an 8-hour shift. But it does give yourself a skill you might need in a bad situation. Nearly all of my calls have been for children caught up in some misadventure or other, usually because they’re running around. Minor head injuries, mostly.
The worst so far was when I was less than ten feet away from one kid who wriggled from his mother’s grasp and fell backwards onto his skull. I didn’t see it – I was on the other side of a partition wall, but Oh God, I heard it. There was a sickening noise. I thought it was a plastic shelf smacking onto the floor, until I heard the awful, blood-curdling, guttural screaming. I don’t know which was worse, the child’s scream, the mother’s distress at her child’s accident and potential head injury, or her guilt at her child falling from her arms. And while I was helping to assess the child’s injury and calming the poor mother, a crowd gathered. One absolute fucknut, who was passing-by, whipped out his mobile phone to capture the moment for posterity.
Just look after your kids in a big store, OK?
Shoving Kids In Trollies and Expecting Them To Stand Still:
OK, you’ve put your kid to stand upright in the trolley, despite my advice not to. Well done. I already hate you. Then, you pile loads of things all around the kid, and wheel them around a large shop with many obstacles. A trolley is not a stable thing, and a child would need to adjust their stance in order not to smash their soft and fragile face on the wire frame. Children can do this, although their sense of balance is not as acute as an adult. So the child stabilises themselves against the motion of the trolley by getting strong foot-purchase on the contents of the trolley.
Just literally a few weeks ago, I saw a child standing in a trolley, on top of some large picture frames. The frames could not fit in the trolley, so were at an angle against the wires of the basket. The child, aged about four, had nowhere to put their feet, other than on the picture frames themselves. There was an ominous crack, and both parents yelled – properly yelled at full volume – at the kid for the cardinal sin of trying to stand upright on top of picture frames whilst being pushed in a trolley.
What sort of clattering thicko buys expensive frames, and then plonks a kid to stand on top of them, and then blames the kid for trying to remain standing up? The father, no doubt blinded by his own brilliance, then yanked the kid out of the trolley by the arm on one massive heave, and gave her a thorough bollocking. The poor child was furious and humiliated. Again, I was on the kids’ side.
All my life, not just in my job, I’ve seen parents smack, clip round the ear, shake, shove, and bully their kids in shops. It’s horrid to watch. By contrast, I’m one of those parents who gets down on one knee and very quietly utters a threat of punishment to my child because I don’t want other people to think I’m a shouty monster. You may call it cowardice, I call it not being a bullying twat in public. I prefer to wait until I get home before behaving like a monster. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?
“Mummy I Want My Phone”:
I just don’t understand why parents, on family days out, shove their kids in the back of the car with a hand-held screeny-thing either, when there’s scenery to look at, daydreams to indulge in, music on the stereo, and family conversations to be had; but I suppose I’m a knee-jerk technophobe who had no option but to tolerate long car journeys as a child. I really don’t understand why parents give their kids an expensive, noisy, flashing gadget on short trips to the shops. I blame both parents and kids for not partaking in the shopping experience in the spirit in which it is intended.
Oh, all right, going shopping is a massive pain in the arse, but is giving your kid a hand-held screen to idle the time away really the answer? Are we really training our kids to be hooked to tiny screens rather than an interest in the world around them? What habits are we forming in their tiny minds? For example, because there was always a book in the bathroom throughout my childhood, I can’t now do a number two in my own home without a good ten minutes’ reading, much to my wife and child’s early morning annoyance. I admit, it’s not a good habit.
So anyway, I was right by the entrance to a nearby supermarket recently, when I noticed a woman coming in. She had a crowd of girls around her, aged roughly between 5 and 13. This woman was posh – sometimes you can just tell, even without hearing them speak. The girls were all pony-tailed and slender and had the same thin face as the woman. An obvious family. And when I eavesdropped on their conversations, their accents were classic English, Radio 4, crystal-decanter, pony club, posho-posh. They had literally just entered the store.
One of the daughters – second eldest, by my reckoning – tapped their mother, who was trying to read a shopping list and read out their plan, on the elbow.
“Mummy, I want my phone” (‘phone’ pronounced as ‘pheaune’)
“In a minute, dear, I’m just trying to…”
“Mummy, I want my phone”
“Let me just get this sorted, lovely”.
“Mummy. I want my phone now.” (this was not shouted, but the emphasis was clearly audible)
“I’ll get you your phone in a minute.”
“Oh, all right poppet, here it is” (produces shiny black monolith from the recesses of a leather handbag).
Child, no word of thanks, instantly puts her head down and starts frantically typing on the phone, no doubt writing on Instayelp to her lacrosse team about how horribly unfair everything is.
I hated both child and mother instantly.
I know we all like our children to have interesting and distinctive names, and we want our children to grow up to be different from all the rest. I don’t want to criticise your choices. Your child’s name is deeply personal, and I respect that your reasons for choosing your child’s name are profound and significant. I also know there are cultural and family reasons for particular names, and I am not fit to pass judgment on your decisions…
…but it has to be said that there are some people who are just white, pretentious, aspirational middle-class wankers who give wanky names to their wanker kids: Cassius. Fabian. Alfonse. Saladin. Thisbe. Orion. Darwin. Blue. Orlando. Clematis. Phoenix. Dante. Ariadne. Persephone. These are all names that have been within my own earshot in shops, and it is almost always said by a pleading woman who is trying ineffectively to control a recalcitrant child. I know am running the risk of offending you if you have given your child a distinctive name that has been bestowed for reasons of tradition, culture, or love, and I get that… but Saladin? Really?
The Couple (with two small children) Who Came Up To Me With A Complaint Who Reeked Of Stale Booze And Swore A Lot:
Fuck me, you people have a serious problem, and I hope your kid does not copy your example.
Oh, and just the other week, I did have somebody be obnoxiously racist to me about the Muslims we get in store, the non-white heritage of one of my colleagues, and anyone from Wales. He didn’t have any kids with him that I could see, so he wasn’t a bad parent, just your average common-or-garden cunt.
Please don’t get me wrong. 99.9999% of the customers I encounter are splendid and polite. They treat their kids with love, and they deal with any frustrations with good humour and reasonable discipline. The kids are usually all right too, they’re just bored surrounded by distractions, and they act out because of it. Sometimes they scream their way around the store, but that’s fine. Kids scream. I don’t mind it, despite some parents thinking I do. I see great parents all day, every day, looking after their kids, singing songs to the tiny ones, involving the older ones in the shopping experience, and doing their best to make their family time in a massive store enjoyable.
Shopping is a chore. It’s a ballache. Maybe all of my examples of poor behaviour were exceptions to their otherwise unimpeachable characters. We can’t be expected to be perfect all the time. So if 99.999% percent of people have one bad shopping trip, who am I to judge? The examples I listed above are rarities, the absolute exception. I don’t see people like that every day, or even every month. So, I’m not exaggerating when I say that 99.999% of my customers – and I usually encounter hundreds on a shift – are superb and I genuinely enjoy helping them.
OK. Maybe on a super-busy day it’s more like 98.7%. A busy store like ours is a bit of an intimidating, overwhelming place, and even though I’ve been there for two years, I have experienced my own share of panic attacks. Yes, I do get people being rude, unreasonable, petulant, whiny, handling disappointment with bad grace, and seemingly hell-bent on being arsey, but that’s part of the job. And maybe I’m the reason why they get annoyed, I dunno. It’s possible I have a manner that enrages and a face that invites punching. What amazes me is how rare these people are, and if they are behaving like pricks, there’s usually an understandable reason why.
But be warned: I do observe people. And so do my colleagues. We’re on to you. Just remember that when you’re out shopping, shop workers such as myself are watching you. If something happens – an incident, a behavioural tick, an overheard remark – you will become an anecdote. We will laugh at you when you’re out of sight. We will repeat what you have just said, and we will snigger about you and your stupid attitude. And you will be judged by your behaviour, and the way you treat your children.
Oh yes. I assure you: Ye shall be judged.