An Experiment in Not Minding My Own Business

How do you thank your kid for helping you grow up?
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"Okay, timeout," I told my daughter one evening when she was 4 and I was bored with our power struggles over bedtime.

She was upset, but resigned herself to a corner for the four minutes.

Forgetting it was dark in her room, I pulled the door almost closed. She cried and said she was scared.

"Be scared," I suggested, obviously in need of a timeout myself.

This was tough on both of us. Katie rarely needed discipline, and when the four minutes were up we hugged -- and talked. Since I'd snapped at her we decided I should get a timeout, too. Her eyes lit up, a little order restored to her kid universe.

"Four minutes!" she announced, with great relish. I congratulated myself on the creative parenting while she paused at the door. Her eyes were wet.

"I won't close it," she said. "I don't want you to be scared."

I was tempted to spend my time in the corner crying, too. How do you thank your kid for helping you grow up?

I still don't have the answer to that one, but one day I decided it wasn't enough to set a better example from this day forward. Once in a while, you have to stick up for somebody else's kid.

We were on the shuttle from the airport to our hotel after a week of so-called vacation. I was slumped in the back with Katie and Darrell, feeling the same way I had the entire trip -- awful. It doesn't matter why. What matters is how quickly my mood changed after a couple of little girls climbed aboard.

"Stay right here," their mother said before attending to their luggage. "Be quiet," she added, "and don't bother anybody."

The minute she left the bus, it started. The giggles. The chatter. The burping. Repeat. They were as wild as they could be without leaving their seats. Even I couldn't help laughing. Those giggles! They were hilarious.

"Thank God I wasn't on your flight!" a guy sitting across the aisle from them exclaimed. By now everyone on the bus was laughing.

All of a sudden Mom was back, and she was furious.

"I told you to be quiet!" she scolded as she slapped the hand of the girl closest to her. Hard. Over and over.

The bus fell silent. Katie looked like she was going to cry. Suddenly, the difference between the trip I'd planned and the trip we'd taken didn't matter. All that mattered was the little girl in the front of the bus, now slumped down in her own seat -- her spirit broken. I thought of how quickly she'd be old enough for kindergarten. I wondered if her mom would remember this night -- and ache for a chance to do it over.

Wait a minute. I'd read about situations like this. There are things you can do. But what? Oh, now I remember! Show some empathy... toward the parent.

I told Katie I was switching seats, before moving to the row in front of her and across from the woman. I didn't know how anxious this made her and Darrell -- I wouldn't find that out until later. For once I didn't worry about them -- or me.

"Excuse me," I told the woman from across the aisle. "I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I think your kids are adorable." Pause. "I've had the worst day, and they made me giggle." Another pause. "I was wondering if you'd take this" -- it was a ten-dollar bill -- "and buy them ice cream or something."

It took a while for her to accept the money but I told her she'd be doing me the favor. "Please," I said. "It would make my day. It would make my week." I told her again the girls are adorable.

"They can be a handful sometimes," she said.

"Oh, I'm sure," I agreed. "I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to travel with two little kids."

"Not only that," she said, "but I've been married for six years and my husband's been gone for half that time. He's in Iraq now."

I thanked her for what her husband's doing and for the sacrifices she's making.

"I have a short fuse sometimes," she admitted.

"How could you not?" I asked. I meant that. I'd snapped at Katie -- not often, since the big timeout when she was 4... but not never.

And the part about Iraq? Oh...

When we got to the hotel, I got in line to check in. The woman asked Darrell if we'd keep an eye on the girls while she took care of their bags again. Would we! The giggles were back, and they were magnificent.

When we got to our room Katie hugged me like I've never been hugged before, and Darrell asked how I'd known what to do.

I hadn't. I was scared. And I was lucky. Had someone caught me not being my best with Kate, however gently it was pointed out, I would've been so embarrassed and ashamed. I wonder if I would've been as gracious as this woman was. I hope so, but how would you know?

All I knew, then, was how good it had felt to feel really bad about something -- and not leave it at that.