- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

The line at the electronics superstore winds from the service desk to the front doors. Apparently, I’m not the only person who noticed the 30-day warranties on our broken holiday gift gadgets are about to expire.

I amble into the queue, holding tight to the bag containing a nonfunctioning wireless mouse and an uncooperative Dance Dance Revolution game (my daughter’s, not mine).

My thoughts drift to the evening’s dinner plan. Staring at the speckled linoleum floor, I imagine ways to cook chicken breast without cream of mushroom soup. My thoughts are disrupted when a little boy wanders away from the line behind me and his mom says, “Ben, come back here. Someone might take you.”

From the corner of my eye, I see Ben smile at her and take another step away from his mother.

I can’t say I blame him. He’s only about 4, but even he knows her warning is extreme. It’s unlikely he’ll be snatched from the superstore while standing eight feet from his mother. He’s checking her credibility.

“Benny, I mean it,” his mom says. “Do you want someone to take you? Come and stand next to me.”

Maybe he does want someone to take him. I turn to watch Benny’s response. His eyes shift from his mom to me. He grins. He giggles. Then he gives his mother a huge, wet “raspberry.” Slobber sprays off his face onto the floor.

“Benjamin,” his mother reprimands. “Do you see this long line? If you wander into the store I’ll have to come and get you, and that means I’ll lose my place and we’ll have to go to the back of the line. Do you want to go to the back of the line and start waiting all over again?”

That’s ridiculous because Benjamin isn’t waiting in line as it is. I give her credit for logic, but she’s dealing with a 4-year-old, so it’s wasted. Besides, it’s clear to both Benny and me that she’s more concerned about keeping her place in line than getting her child to obey her command.

Benjamin does just what you would expect from a boy who has heard his share of idle threats. He takes two more steps backward, sticks his tongue between his lips and sprays his mother again, this time bigger, louder and wetter than before, his eyes glowing with a demonic twinkle.

Did I mention the line is long? The tug of war between Benny Boy and his mom continues endlessly while we inch forward. I resist the urge to help this woman by snapping at her son, “Listen up, Ben. Get in line now before you and your mother make me criminally insane.”

Benjamin’s mom heaves a heavy sigh into the back of my jacket. I remember what it’s like to have a defiant preschooler, and I sense her frustration, but what’s really running through my mind is, “Lady, you’re toast. You think little Benny is tough now? Just wait until he’s 15.”

Lest I seem unsympathetic, let me just say, I’m unsympathetic. This is because I once was the mom in the superstore whose child tested the limits and bolted from the line. But somewhere in the back of my parent psyche was a tiny voice counseling me, “Never negotiate with a 4-year-old.”

Ben is testing his mother’s authority, and that’s his job. This is how 4-year-olds find their limits. Mom’s job is to set those limits and stick to them.

I do deep-breathing exercises, trying to ignore their annoying battle of wills. Only my proximity to the front of the line keeps me from turning around and saying, “If you want little Benny to cooperate, you need to follow through. If he were my kid, I’d be out in the parking lot having a nose-to-nose chat with Ben to let him know my expectations for this shopping trip. Then I’d come back inside, go to the end of the line like I promised, and chat with my son while we waited. If he wandered off again, we’d start all over until we got it right. It’s time-consuming, inconvenient — even exasperating — but do you want a child who obeys you or not?”

It’s a great speech, but I don’t give it.

Instead, when the sales associate says, “I can help the next person in line,” I dart toward the service desk and do my business, thankful that Benny’s mom is called to the opposite end of the counter.

From my brief observation, Ben’s mother looks like one of those parents who applies reason and hopes her child eventually will respond respectfully to her requests.

I don’t think her strategy is going to work.

Today’s raspberry in mom’s face is tomorrow’s “Whatever,” spoken with teenage disdain when Ben walks out the door with the car keys and his mom shouts, “Be home before 11.”

One of these days, when he’s slamming doors in her face, yelling about her rules and ignoring her repeated warnings, she may wonder how Ben turned into such an unruly teenager. She probably won’t see a connection to episodes like the one in the superstore when her son was just a child.

Benny’s mom got a refund for her unwanted item, but she bought herself a couple of raspberries instead, and those are nonreturnable.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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