At the Check Out with Child


“Oh shoot!” I said in a checkout aisle at a store. 

“What’s the matter?” my son asked.

“I just realized, I don’t have enough money to pay for these items,” I lied. I double-check my wallet, and I added a theatrical check of my pockets. Three customers stood between the Promised Land and us. I write Promised Land to characterize how much my son hates going to stores of any kind. Most people accept the fact of life that when we need goods, we need to enter a store. My son is not there yet. Entering stores is the great inconvenience of his life. When we mention that we must go to the store, he throws a fit that lasts until we enter the store. He indulges us, while in the store by behaving, but throughout our brief stay, he is looking for anything and everything that might cut short our stay and take him to his personal vision of the Promised Land, the store’s exit.

Back before debit cards, and back before we went and got all growed up, we had incidents like this,“You still need twenty-seven cents,” a checker told me in the most dismissive manner imaginable. I remember this transaction every time I pass this convenience store. I remember standing there with insufficient funds thinking that I wasn’t ready for the rigors involved in completing such an adult transaction. I was in no position to question this sentry at the gate of maturity, but this transaction occurred before we all went digital. We could question analog, or manual, cash registers back then, because they required manual entries that could fall prey to human error. I told the cashier that I carefully added the total, and that I couldn’t see how I could be wrong. I showed the cashier my addition. “You forgot the sales tax kid,” the guy said. He was right. I heard about sales tax, but I didn’t know how to add it to a total yet. I was so humiliated and embarrassed that I walked away with my tail between my legs, vowing that this would never happen to me again. Remnants of that anxiety remain with me to this day. I over prepare in the aisles of the store. I check and double-check the price of my items, I project a total, and I allow abundant room for any errors in my calculations. Some of the times, I put much-wanted items back just in case I added the percentage of sales tax incorrectly. It’s still such a deep seeded anxiety that I would rather not have some items than risk the prospect of that embarrassment and humiliation I experienced as a young kid.

When an incident such as that leads to such hypervigilance throughout our lives, we make the mistake of believing that everyone knows about it on some level.  

I turned to my seven-year-old son at the checkout stand, “Do you have any money?” He had money in his pockets one time at a store, when we took him there to spend his birthday money. So, I thought this was such a ludicrous question that we might share a laugh. What I didn’t realize was that by insinuating that it was ludicrous that he should have any money, I was calling him ludicrous to his mind. He didn’t think it was ludicrous that he should have money. He had money, in fact, and he told me so.

“Yes,” he said. “I do have money.” Through some back and forth, we realized that he meant he had money in his piggy bank in his bedroom.

“No, I’m asking you if have any money on you right now,” I said, “I need you to help me pay for all this?”

“I don’t have any,”my son said. He was a little disappointed, but it dawned on me that he wasn’t disappointed in himself, or his role in this, because why should he be? Plus, he was rarely disappointed in himself, as he rarely cared about such situations. Thus, whenever he exhibits any disappointment in himself, it’s based on the idea that I might be disappointed in him.

If I ask him, “Did you score any goals in your last soccer match?” and he has to say no, he does so in a way that suggests to me that he never thought about it, until I asked. “Did you get 100% on your last spelling test?” He knows when he didn’t, of course, but he forgot about it soon after he received his test back. He doesn’t care about any of these things in the fundamental manner I do, just like he didn’t care that we didn’t have enough money to help pay for all the items we have in our shopping cart, but he doesn’t want to disappoint me by saying so. He’s no more ambivalent to such matters than any other normal seven-year-old boy, and just like every other normal boy his age, he knows that his happiness is based on the parameters that his authority figures set for him. He cares what I care about, in other words, and he knows that I’m trying to teach him to care. He also doesn’t want to disappoint me by revealing the truth of the matter that both of us know.

Do our kids worry about scoring goals in soccer matches? Do they even think about it? Do they care about winning? Parents on the sideline do, and we show it by building ourselves into a lather as the game progresses. We hoot, holler, and scream anytime they make a halfway decent move on their field. Kids enjoy hearing that, and they want more of it. Yet, nine times out of ten when an opposing player has the ball, our kids watch them dribble the ball along with the rest of us, until a parent or coach yells their name out, “There you go Freidrich. That’s yours.” We parents now say such things, because we’ve learned from our parents. We remember the pain and humiliation our parents induced when they screamed, “Wake the hell up and go get the ball!” in front of everyone. We use better, less inoffensive ways to encourage our children to wake the hell up now. When we now yell these inoffensive things, we awake them out of whatever momentary stupor they’re in, and they try to take the ball away from the other kid.

“Why didn’t you take the ball away from the kid before I said something?” we want to ask them.

“I don’t know,” they say. If they were more reflective and analytical, they might say, “The thought didn’t even cross my mind. I thought it was that feller’s ball at the time, and I thought he was doing just fine with it.” They might not be able to express themselves at the time, but we can see it on their face, as they watch the other kid dribbling. When they watch the opponent, along with the rest of the spectators, some of them even smile. We don’t know if they’re daydreaming in the moment, or if they’re appreciating the other kid’s ability, imagining what their parents might think of them if they were that skilled. When we instruct them to take the ball away, their expression flips, as if by a switch, from the daydreaming smile to one of determination, as they attempt to take the ball away from the opponent.

“You don’t just let the opponent dribble the ball in front of you,” we say with some exasperation after the game is over. We think they should understand that fundamental element of sports by now. “When the opponent has the ball, you need to steal it from him. That’s the key to most sports.”

If he was able to articulate the complex inconsistencies in the worldview I try to pass to him, he might say, “Well, doesn’t that fly in the face of everything you, and all my teachers, have taught me about sharing?”    

Other than “I don’t know” my son didn’t say any of these things, because he knows it would disappoint me that he hasn’t learned all of these complex concepts at age seven. He also isn’t able to articulate my inconsistencies on matters of large and small. Even though we enter our children into various sports, they’re brains are still so young that it’s tough for them to make quick connections. Even though we’ve logged hundreds of hours playing sports with them in the backyard, coaching them up with our philosophy on sports, they’re still so young that they have a tough time grasping difficult concepts. Their whole world is about having fun, laughing, and not caring about things. How many of us wish we spent our early, elementary years being more serious? They focus their mind on the simple, enjoyable aspects of life, and they know that the key to living that good life is to do everything they can to avoid disappointing the authority figures in their life.

After spending some time in theatrical deliberation, in the checkout line at the store, I looked at my son, “I think we might have to put some of these items back.” I affected this with grave disappointment that I hoped might transfer to him. He didn’t appear to be the least bit moved by it. He looked at the items, and he looked back at me.

“Well what are we doing standing around here then?” he said. “Let’s put these things back and get the heck out of here.”

His response suggested a certain level of ambivalence that threw me a little, but the full scope of his ambivalence didn’t dawn on me, until I said, “I’m just kidding. I have the money.” I don’t know how I expected him to respond, but I thought it might come somewhere close to relief. What I received instead was:

“Well what are we doing standing around here then? Let’s pay for these things and get the heck out of here.”

The prospect of the embarrassment and humiliation involved in putting things back obviously didn’t hit him yet. The embarrassment derives from not having enough money, not being able to add correctly, and being called out in front of a group of people. He hasn’t yet grasped the concept of money, and how others could view one with insufficient funds as not earning enough to buy something at a convenience store. He thinks we just go to the ATM to get the money necessary the complete a transaction. He doesn’t understand that we put money in there for later withdrawal. He’s seven years old, he doesn’t understand the complex emotions of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation on the level we do. 

If we spend enough time with our child, we will overestimate them as often as we underestimate them. We will also assign our complex emotions and values to them, and even though we teach them they’re young, unformed brains cannot grasp them yet. 

Even though I knew that my son had no experience with such situations, I incorrectly assumed that most people came equipped with that inherent sense of doing everything they could to avoid them. He, of course, didn’t know enough to know he should be embarrassed. We think we know them, but more often than not our experiences in life are not theirs, and they don’t understand how experiences, good and bad, shape the life we lead in various instances. If we spend enough time with them, however, we think they should naturally do what we want them to do, even without us telling them one way or another.

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