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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Great Valentine's Day Debacle

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Kerrying On

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The following article was first published on February 17, 2010.

This year I’ve decided to give you (kind readers) a Valentine’s Day gift. I know it’s a few days late, but since my present is neither candy nor flowers (and won’t decay) I think the gift I have in mind will do just fine. I’m giving you a nonperishable story of a Valentine’s Day I experienced some thirty-five years ago. It’s a tale that I believe might help lift your spirits some day when you’ve done something—how does one put it?—not all that clever. Plus the story provides a nice reminder of the importance of keeping focused on what you really want.

It all started one Saturday evening when I suddenly realized that I only had an hour to buy my wife a Valentine’s Day gift. Since Louise was working on a project across campus (I was a grad student at the time), I loaded our six- and four-year-old daughters into the back seat of our Volkswagen bug, strapped our six-month-old son into one of those plastic baby carriers, and headed off to the nearest shopping center I could find.

Soon, with Becca, Christine, and a Raggedy Ann doll connected to me in a daisy chain of hand holds, and Taylor swinging gently in the plastic carrier clutched in my other hand, we found ourselves scurrying through a very high-end shopping center that was close to our apartment—but unlike any place I had ever been before (it didn’t have “Mart” or “O-rama” in the title). It was chock-full of wealthy, beautifully attired, perfectly coiffed people who frequented the luxurious stores that surrounded us.

Since I had been cleaning my outdoor grill when it struck me that I needed to buy a gift, I didn’t look much like the prim and proper patrons around me. I looked more like the Maytag repairman, and my kids appeared as if they had just been plucked from the sand pile in our back court. Which they had. The shoppers’ genial smiles turned into looks of disapproval as they scrutinized our scruffy clothes, our home-cut hair, and our barely opposable thumbs.

Eventually, the four of us found our way to the home center of a posh department store where they had on display the very present my wife had hinted she wanted—a variable speed blender, complete with pulse control. Soon, a perky clerk was wrapping up a bright red blender I had chosen in honor of Valentine’s Day. I knew that a household appliance wasn’t as romantic as, say, a diamond necklace, but you have to ask yourself: Can you whip up a batch of pureed spinach with a diamond necklace? I don’t think so.

Next, as the clock continued to run, the girls and I scampered out into the shopping center in search of an affordable card. Everything was so expensive. A simple card cost five bucks.

“Daddy,” Christine uttered, “don’t you think . . .”

“Shush,” I blurted as we hurried past one high-end store after another. “I need to find your mother a card.”

“I know,” Christine continued, “but . . .”

“No ifs-ands-or-buts about it. If I don’t find a card, I’m in trouble.”

Seeing that her sister was getting nowhere, three-year-old Becca asked: “Where’s baby Taylor?”

It was like being hit by a bucket of cold water. There in the hand that had once carried my son, was a package containing a variable-speed blender, complete with pulse-control. Where was baby Taylor?

“He’s back in that big store,” Christine offered as she pointed to the far end of the shopping center.

Egads. I had left my son in the middle of the blender display! In a flash I reversed course and headed back to the scene of the crime where I frantically tried to get into the store—repeatedly banging into a locked pair of massive glass doors.

“The place is closed,” explained an older gentleman walking by. “It’s Saturday night.”

“But I left my so . . .” I cut myself off midword. “But I left something inside.”

“You’ll have to go around back to the employee entrance,” the fellow explained.

Moments later the girls and I scurried along a terribly long wall while employees disgorged from a lone door at the far end of the building. The animated employees walking our way were all talking about some idiot who had . . . (well, you can guess). Then, as they saw me frantically hustling along with my two remaining kids in hand, they quickly concluded that I was the fool they had been bad-mouthing.

If looks could kill . . .

The best I could do was smile back lamely. I just wanted my son back.

Eventually my daughters and I found ourselves inside the building and standing next to a knot of folks who were cooing and making other baby noises while my son, still in his plastic container, smiled back politely. I searched for the proper words.

“Has anyone found a baby? It seems I’ve lost one.” No, that would land me in jail for sure.

“Funny thing, I came with three kids and now I only have two. Go figure.” Equally lame.

Eventually I blurted out, “You’ve found my son! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Pointing out that they had found (rather than I had lost) my son appeared to take the edge off the pack of store clerks. Nevertheless, the lady in charge gave me a long, hard look before barking, “Do you think you can get him home without losing him?”

“I brought my Raggedy Ann,” Christine remarked as she held up her well-worn doll. “And I didn’t lose her.”

“Yes, dear and I’m very proud of you,” I muttered back. Then looking the authority figure directly in the eye I tersely proclaimed, “So, we’ll just be heading on home now.”

With this lame pronouncement fresh off my lips, I snatched up Taylor and retreated out of the massive building.

“Do we tell Mommy the secret?” Christine asked as we walked back to the car.

“No!” I blurted. “We mustn’t tell Mommy that I bought her a variable speed blender, complete with pulse control. It would spoil the surprise and we don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

“I mean. . . how you left Taylor in the middle of the store and then got locked out?”

I was doomed. There was no way I was going to be able to keep the two girls from tattling on me. And sure enough, a few minutes later when we pulled up in front of our apartment, the girls bolted from the car as they rushed to tell mom the exciting news. They kept the blender a secret, but not the fact that I had left their baby brother in a big, scary store. That part of our little escapade they told with great relish.

“You left him in the store and then got locked out?” Louise asked incredulously as I presented her a brightly-wrapped gift.

“True,” I explained, “but you haven’t had a chance to see the gift I bought for you. I was so focused on expressing my love for you with this truly special household item—complete with pulse control—that I lost focus for a second.”

“You didn’t lose focus,” Louise accused, “you lost Taylor!”

“I didn’t lose my Raggedy Ann,” Christine offered.

And so there you have it my friends—my present to you. Never again did I leave a child locked in a department store. I learned my lesson. I learned to stay focused on what really matters.

In addition, I freely admit to my idiocy. That’s the whole point of this story. One day when you’re feeling bad because you missed a deadline at work or maybe you were late picking up your daughter at soccer practice, think of me and my Valentine’s Day debacle. Compared to me, you’ll be a saint. And should a loved one become angry at you for not flossing your kids’ teeth adequately or keeping them from getting hurt on a see-saw, you can say: “True, I messed up. But at least I’m not as bad as that idiot who left his baby in the middle of a blender display!”

That’s my present to you.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

33 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Great Valentine's Day Debacle”

  1. I laughed when I read your Valentine’s Day debacle. My husband took my 3 year old and 15-month old to the grocery store. Both of our kids were allowed to walk next to the cart. The 15-month old wandered away from my husband. My husband wanted to teach him a lesson about not staying with him. My husband snuck around the corner so that my son would panic at “losing Dad.” My 15-month old taught my husband about how quickly he could scale a 20-foot high stack of soda cases. The 15-month old climbed fearlessly to the top. My 15-month old proudly said, “Hi, Dad” from the top. Needless to say, it changed the focus of what was important at the grocery store. My husband asked the 15-month old to please get down. Happily, the 15-month old did climb down–and did it safely.

    Just like your kids…my 3-year old immediately tattled upon arriving home to tell me the tale of the dangerous climbing experience.

    Bless the stores that have 2 seat grocery carts!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your gift. Does it help to know that you are not the only one to leave a child behind or to ignore the words of a child that would have returned you to the store before it closed?
    Mellie

  3. Ken: We’re living similar life experiences. My debacle occurred while taking care of my 3 sons while my wife was out of town on a business trip. Before she left we had a chili and marguarita party with neighbors. On Monday, in a rush, I made the boy’s lunches and sent them off to school in grades 2, 4 and 8. In packing the lunches for the two youngest I treated them to a container of lemonade. Yep, you guess it, their lemonade was actually left over marguarita. Thankfully, when they called me at the hospital after school they said it tasted awful and they threw it out. I told them to mention this to no one until I got home. Their mother was returning that evening. Upon hitting my driveway my neighbor yelled at me and asked if I’d make her lunch tomorrow. They had ratted me out. I told them to not mention this to their mother until I could explain. I had a big meeting and project presentation that morning and in the thinking about that I’d mistakenly given them the wrong thing to drink. Good story, made sense, she’d understand. The moment she drove up, they raced down the driveway and again, ratted me out, laughing all the way. Unfortunately she was standing among 3 of her collegues from work when the story was broken to her. Shock and dismay don’t come close to adequately describing the thoughts and emotions that over took her. The razzing among neighbors and friends only lasted about 3-4 weeks. Oh, I forgot to mention, I was running for the school board at the time. I got elected and our family survived intact. Both of my youngest sons are college grads with management careers with Fortune 500 companies. You’re right, you have to step back once and a while and refocus on the big things.

    One other thing. I once lost the youngest at the mall while getting my wife a special Christmas present. With the other two in tow I found him a few minutes later crying in the arms of a security guard. He was 4 at the time but the story gets retold every holiday. Can’t remember what I bought my wife that day.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    Bill Oakes
    Director of Business Development
    Johnson Memorial Hospital
    Franklin, Indiana

  4. Yeah, focus is pretty tough when you have both hands full, plus a blender to tote . Thank GOD for mothers, and Valentines to re-focus us. ;->

  5. Dear Kerry,

    As a father, your story touched on fears that all fathers share. The honest approach you took to resolve the problem you faced dealt with the immediate result. However, I would like to point out that there should be a second step that can be done at a later date, and that is “understanding WHY” you experienced the problem/failure/distress in the first place.

    In most organizations when someone drops the ball it is just as probable that organizational policies, and structure are as much of a cause as human fallibility. In fact, really big errors are almost always indicative that the organization is missing key checks and balances, or that it is unintentionally setting its employees up for failure through its policies and processes.

    A classic example of a poorly designed human operated system is the old Mustang Fighter plane. There are a large number of accidents where a landing pilot ejected during landing. Yes, you guessed it. The landing gear and the ejection lever were side by side. The solution was to move the ejection lever to the other side of the cockpit.

    In your example, the conflict was that you had a full time job herding the kids, AND you had a second full attention job of gift selection. This type of multitasking almost always results in some less than optimum output.

    My message is that the senior management who is on the receiving end of a confession needs to ask what is generically wrong to avoid having other employees appearing before them with similar confessions. I constantly emphasize that critical communication in a health organization requires investment from both sides when bad news is being transmitted.

    Your wife was obviously very understanding. Did she ask you if you could have taken an older neighbor child along to help herd the crowd, or any of many other options. The goal isn’t to pick fault with what was done, but to look at what options could be used in the future so this doesn’t have a chance to repeat itself.

    Sincerely,
    Regis

  6. You are blessed with a wonderful gift – the ability to connect with people through your stories. Every story makes me think that I should let you know just how much I enjoy your writing and what a strong impact your stories have… but lazy gal that I am, I don’t write. Well, here’s my thank-you for this story, your previous stories, and hopefully, the many more to come.
    Your fan,
    Kathy

  7. Thank you for sharing this experience. It proves that we are all human and even watching the Olympics shows that even after several years of practice – they even make mistakes. I need that desperately because I feel I do everything wrong. I was late for work because I had it in my mind to be to work in the afternoon and I had to be in in the morning and I didn’t see my schedule until 10 min. after I needed to be at work. I called and flew out the door. I was still 1/2 hr. late. I guess the best thing is to forgive yourself and then learn from it. It helps me to know that I am not the only one who isn’t perfect.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I actually needed a good laugh, sorry it was at your expense and I appreciate you being willing to put yourself out there.

  9. What a gift… easy to read, hard to forget, and I laughed out loud! I especially liked the “plucked from the sand pile” and “our barely opposable thumbs.” Thank you.

  10. I would have also been upset about getting a home appliance for Valentines Day or any holiday. The crock pot that I was given one year did not make me happy–and my “ex” husband heard about it.

  11. Oh, it hurts! I’ve been laughing so hard, and, believe me, I really needed a good laugh. There will be times when we will do something quite silly or stupid or totally insane. I liked Regis’ comments about taking time to consider options.
    My DH (dear hubby) and I have figured out the Valentine’s Day thing…we avoid the commercialism and simply spend time together. It is the best gift of all.

  12. Well, good for you for being able to look back at a story like that without cringing. But to tell you the truth, I blame the “bucket” that you were carrying your child in. I believe your mind would never have allowed you to lose track of an infant that you had direct contact with…but putting a carrier between you and him silenced the message “you have a baby over here, be aware.”

  13. Ken – I love it! I laughed so hard as I imagined the entire scene! Yes, this makes us all feel, what I would call, human. 🙂 Thanks for the laugh and reality check that we all make mistakes.

  14. I just love reading your writings. You have a way with words. It brought to mind the time I left my girls in the car to go inside a store(8 ft. away)to get something quickly, only to have the 3 year old put the car in reverse and roll out in the middle of a busy street. An ambulance stopped to retrieve the vehicle (the driver was a friend), and an angry bystander came into the store to ream me out in front of everyone. A day I’ll never forget. Fortunately my children lived and have grown into wonderful caring adults with children of their own. Take care.

  15. I’m still trying to figure out why she did not kill you for buying her a blender for Valentines day! Oh how the times have changed!

    Dave

  16. I laughed so hard! Thank you Kerry. I feel so much better since I only left my sons at the fountain in the mall to fish money out of the fountain and present them to me, sleeves soaked and fists dripping with wet coins, full of glee knowing they were now rich. (I still wonder how many people saw them in the water and wondered, “What idiot woman do these two kids belong to?) Blessings!

  17. Many people have left their child, wife, etc at church, rest stops, etc. The pastor once forgot to put underpants on her daughter who told everyone. My grandpa left his beautifully colored high blood pressure pills on the window sill and I ate them all. It was too late to pump my stomach so my parents had to keep we awake by making me drink black coffee and walk or I would have died. Thank you for graciously and generously sharing stores of your weaknesses with us so we can learn without having to expereince simliar pain.

  18. I love that so many readers love you enough to leave comments about their own mishaps, not wanting you to feel alone in your forgetfulness. It says so much about your stories that we all enjoy and learn from, and the relationships that you have built with so many online. Such a gift you have and share with all of us. Thank you!

  19. Thank you for reminding us that we are all human. Somedays the old thinking cap just doesn’t produce the results we had intended. Very amuzing story. I am the mother of six children that were born within 9 years, so I know how difficult it can be to keep everything in order when you make an adventure to a mall. People used to stare at me when I would make such an adventure. My husband and I had thought about buying t-shirts to wear that said, “Yes, there are six and they are all ours!” What fun as I look back and wonder ‘How did I do it?”..One day at a time and learn from your mistakes. Also, as you have done, share your stories so others may learn from them….Thank you again for a heart warming story…Hope you had a Happy Valentine’s Day….

  20. Kerry, I’ve always loved your articles and this one was no exception! Thank you for the gift. Thank you also for the reminder that we are ALL human and make mistakes. I learned the same hard lesson when my own precious daughter was 2 – she toddled away from me at a vendor show in a huge convention center. Following about 5 minutes (that felt like hours) of panic, the overhead announcement was heard that the mommy of a little girl with blond hair was lost and should report to the security office. So, even Mommies can make mistakes.

  21. As both a mom that has searched for children, momentarily separated and left behind, as well as surviving my own childhood of being left behind, I appreciate the ability you have of sharing stories like these. The stories that touch both my funny bone as well as acknowledging that I’ve been there done that in my own life. Nice to know we are never quite alone in this experience we call LIFE. Thank you for all your stories. I appreciate all of them.

  22. Thank you for this beautiful story, and for the many other stories you share in this newsletter. They inspire, create a space for self reflection, and just always seem to touch my heart. You have such a wonderful gift. Thank you for sharing it.

  23. While loosing focus and misplacing your child was horible it ended well. However, I hope that you quickly learned that a gift for the love of your life should never be something that requires additional work (blender, dishwasher, vacuum, etc.). A gift should be something that one simply enjoys. 🙂

  24. Thank you for this delightful story. I often lose perspective on what my rightful priorities are as I go about my day. I am a better person for having read your story for both, the laughter it brought forth, and the precious reminder of what is important to my purpose in this life.

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