THE TIME MY KID TOOK OFF HER MASK AT TARGET

I may go viral soon.

Recently, my husband and two daughters stopped by Target to pick up a few odds and ends. Throughout quarantine, my kids have been earning money and their pockets were burning. They both thought carefully about what to buy, giving me a quiet satisfaction that, at 9 and 13, they are beginning to understand budgeting and the cost of the objects of their desire. My 9-year old, Charlotte, was quick to make her selections: a weird stuffed animal thing in a plastic box shaped like a melting popsicle, sharpies for drawing class, and stickers.

As usual, my 13-year old cemented herself in the office supply aisle. Caroline is a collector, having accumulated over 50 notebooks and a dozen or more water bottles. Mechanical pencils are a newer passion and she requests them daily. She is so passionate about her collectibles that she often gets stuck on only one topic that she can’t unstick herself from thinking about. Right now, it is pencils.“Mom, will you buy me mechanical pencils? Can we go to the store to buy them? Can you order them on Amazon? Can you do it now?”

Having her own money helps Caroline understand that we can buy what we’d like with money we’ve earned. It also helps her practice strengthening her impulse control, gain a sense of delayed gratification, and improve her math skills. As a kiddo with a developmental delay, these are all really critical milestones. Sometimes, Caroline’s behavior is like that of a small child, which is frustrating to all of us in her family because we have expectations for the behavior and actions of children as they age. Life would sure be easier if Caroline had the competencies and maturity of other kids her age, but she doesn’t, so we continue to navigate the bumps in the road.

While she was still hovering over the pencils, I stood at the end of the aisle and gave Caroline a five minute warning, a technique we use often to help her transition between activities. Dancing a bit between aisles in an attempt to keep 6 feet of distance between me and the other shoppers, I then prompted Caroline with a one-minute countdown and she reluctantly turned toward me with a small pack of mechanical pencils in her hand. Following a protocol we established with her behavior specialist, I praised her for making a choice and transitioning without any issues.

“All set, buddy?” I asked her, sensing her frustration at being pushed to make a decision not at her own pace.

“Yeah. I guess so. I’ll just get these today.” I could tell she was internally processing all the things we’ve been working on teaching her and I was proud. Just a few years ago, we weren’t able to leave a Target without her tantrumming over being told no to a purchase request. Now, she can bring her own money, prioritize her purchases, and leave happy with her decision.

My husband and I checked out first, spending too much money on not very much, like underwear and shampoo, but also scoring a few containers of that amazing Target trail mix with chocolate. Charlotte was next and I pumped sanitizer onto her hands as she stepped away from the checkout area. Finally, Caroline placed her pack of pencils on the conveyor belt. She methodically and cautiously pulled the money  from her wallet and gathered her small bag with a satisfied smile. I pumped sanitizer onto her hands as we left.

I walked slightly ahead of Caroline, who moves at a slower pace. My mind was on dinner plans and getting home before anything frozen thawed on this hot summer day. I stopped to look both ways before stepping off of the sidewalk and heard someone shouting. A young woman passed me and Caroline. She made eye contact with me and I’d tried to eye smile at her, as I’m now practicing since nobody can see my mouth behind my mask. Now, I realized she was shouting at me. Or rather at Caroline who had just taken off her mask.. “Put on your mask! What’s wrong with you!” I turned toward the woman as her words lashed in our direction and echoed across the parking lot. A few passersby had stopped to watch the interaction. The young woman, two dozen paces from us, stood firm, her feet planted in a power stance, her arms waving, and her eyes blazing above her mask. “There’s a pandemic happening! Put on a mask! What is wrong with people?”

Disinterested in escalating the situation and concerned for Caroline, I grabbed her hand, put my head down, and walked swiftly toward the car.  My masked face was hot and turning red. I was so embarrassed. Caroline started crying. As we drove home, I wondered if that woman had taken a photo of us. I couldn’t recall if she had her device in hand. Were Caroline and I about to go viral? Would the world soon see me as just another angry Karen, pushing her privileged agenda over the safety of others?

We barely left the house for three months, we still wear masks and we socially distance. Asking if the kids have their masks and sanitizer is now as routine as reminding them to go to the bathroom before we leave. I’m frustrated when I see people in public not wearing a mask or wearing it tucked under their nose.  To the woman I encountered yesterday at Target, I am sorry and I apologize for not doing my job as a parent by ensuring my child followed masking protocol. I should have been walking alongside her and caught her unmasking. I know you are upset and scared and maybe someone you know or love has been a victim of COVID and all you wanted to do was go to Target and buy underwear and trail mix without worrying you’d be infected because of some stupid Karen and her kid. We learned our lesson and, next time we go out, we will do better.

If I had the chance to meet her, I would share Caroline’s story with her and tell her how proud we are to have her as our daughter and watch her overcome things, like her ability to wear a mask despite her sensory challenges. I would apologize. If she were still listening, I’d challenge her. I’d ask her if she had ever been shamed as a child when she made a mistake and I’d ask her how she felt in that moment. I’d ask if it changed her behavior and I’d ask her if she carried that shame long after it took place, having forgotten what action precipitated the shaming, but not the feeling of being told you are less than.

It was a teachable moment for me. It reminded me that our actions speak loudly and make a lasting impact, for better and worse.