Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.07.17To A Young Mother in the Supermarket Parking Lot

I feel a bit anxious every time I write a post that applies something I’ve learned about teaching to parenting. I always remember the feeling of being a parent when everyone thinks they know better than you. So I will state that I am most certainly NOT a parenting expert, but every once in a while I am foolish enough to write something about parenting anyway, hoping it might be helpful.  If it is, great. If not. please don’t feel the need to tell me what an awful person I am.


At the supermarket Sunday morning I was observing a mom with two young girls.  One was perhaps two or two and a half. The other might have been five.  They were happy girls- curious about everything… smiley and adorable. They were sweet kids but they were also a bit all over the place.  She’d be grabbing some fruit and suddenly they would be out of her sight and she wouldn’t quite know where they were, and this became a problem when they left the store and went into the parking lot.

I happened to be just behind them and the littlest kept dancing away from her mom. The mom would glance away and suddenly her littlest was ten yards away twirling circles in the place where a car might turn in or back out.  It was dangerous. There was no brake-screeching incident, but it was definitely not safe.

And so the mom corrected the girls. “Don’t run away, honey,” she said.  “Momma said No dancing right now.”  And honestly it wasn’t working so well.  She would describe what they shouldn’t do but not what they should. The girls had to make an inference to know that what she wanted was for them to walk right next to her in the parking lot. They had to make an inference about how to do ‘walking with momma’ right. And of course they didn’t yet know enough to make that inference.

It reminded me that what I was seeing was the need for What To Do… a lesson I learned over and over myself as a parent and for which I am grateful to all the teachers who taught me.

For a moment I considered approaching and explaining:

“If you tell her what to do—‘Stay right next to momma” or “Hold my hand”–instead of what not to do—“Don’t run away”– it will be easier for her to follow your directions.  They’ll be clearer and she’ll follow them. Plus you can give your directions earlier and more warmly because they are just instructions not a correction. You’ll be reminding not nagging.  

If she still struggles, simplify your directions even more. Shrink the change into something even more specific and observable: “Closer please. You should be near enough to touch momma with your hand.”

Anyway I didn’t do that. It felt too presumptuous and awkward. A middle aged man giving parenting advice to a young mother in the parking lot feels weird and judgmental and quite possibly creepy. I thought of the time a man gave my wife advice on how to hold our daughter when she was breastfeeding her. I definitely wasn’t gonna be that guy.  I didn’t say anything.

But all day I found myself worrying about that happy little girl twirling away in the parking lot–the danger and also the long term challenge of momma feeling like she had to get stern with her when she ‘wouldn’t’ follow directions.’ I fact I was pretty sure would have if she’d understood the directions.

So maybe I should have said something.

Anyway given that I didn’t, here’s a belated note to that young mom of two lovely healthy girls… or anyone else who you think might find the advice that great teachers taught me as a sometimes struggling parent: You’re doing great. They’re lovely kids. Everyone struggles sometimes. But try using What To Do directions… describe the solution in clear, observable, concrete steps so your kiddos know just what to do to get it right.

Oh, and hug ’em every chance you get.


3 Responses to “To A Young Mother in the Supermarket Parking Lot”

  1. August 7, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    I thought you might enjoy this piece that is responsive to yours.


    • Doug Lemov
      August 7, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks, Karen. Nice post. It combines two techniques i thin great teachers use to motivate and inspire What To DO directions and Positive Framing for corrections. And as you point out they’re both useful for adults too!

  2. Lynn
    August 10, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    To be honest I was a little skeptical when I read the title hoping this wasn’t another one of those ‘all the things you’re doing wrong’ parenting posts. But you respectfully captured some great points to consider, both as a parent and an educator. How awful for your wife to have been given advice from a man while breastfeeding! I’m glad you decided not to be *that* guy! LOL I totally could have used this post 11 years ago when, as a new mom, I knew in my head the strategies and techniques I’d used in the classroom but just couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work with my own kids…things are easier now thankfully. I guess that’s what personal experience does! 😉

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