Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Little Monsters (Part Four)

Parts One, Two, and Three attempted to share the fodder behind my recent mediations on public parenting and the judging that ensues. Over the course of these posts, a bunch of really smart and thoughtful people chimed in with their comments and enriched this raw material into a meaty and complex conversation. No one was more thrilled than I, not only because I appreciate the feedback and added energy of readers but also because such comments help me to continue sussing out whatever topic is foremost on my mind and therefore under examination here.

As I've mentioned before, my primary reason for writing this blog is to provide myself with a place to process the trickier points of being a parent in the world in general and a stay-at-home feminist mother in particular. I'm happy to report that so far the author's mental health benefits are very real. Whatever frustration, angst, hurt, and/or confusion inspires me to sit down and compose a post in the first place dwindles by the time I share it via the internets. It tends to dissolve completely when others offer their points of view.

Which is to say that I'm feeling pretty calm about the whole being-judged-as-a-parent thing right about now. I found some kind of resonance in every perspective that was posted, whether or not I agree with each comment completely. This resonance reminded me that although different people, with our different personalities, often have different ideas of what's appropriate and helpful in any given situation, the majority of us are at least trying.

Maybe that's what's so frustrating. We're all trying and yet we so often find one another grating. Do we care too much? Should those of us who feel incessantly judged stop caring so much about what other people think? When we're irritated or inconvenienced by friends, family, or strangers and their rotten kids, should we take a deep breath and chuckle at the dynamic spectacle that is public life? Should we quash the voice inside our heads that automatically assumes we know better than the next person how to raise children and supplant it with a more humble, empathetic gremlin?

I believe the saying is, "Live and let live." Or, more succinctly, "Relax."

It's nice to know that most people have concern for the health and well-being of children in general.

It's a pain in the ass that different people have different boundaries regarding their concern for the health and well-being of children in general.

It's too bad that some people don't concern themselves with the health and well-being of their own children.

It's impressive but rare that people exhibit the grace to support parents instead of issuing criticisms or attempting to usurp their authority, tactics that are certain only to alienate and enrage.

As Bree suggested, perhaps the best approach is to "offer a kind word, a helping hand, and try your best to keep the judgemental tone out of your voice whether you have kids or not."

I suggest a quick and easy self-administered pre-test for those on the verge of jumping into the raucous parenting moments of others. As a parent, I always appreciate and warm to offers of support. Unsolicited help, on the other hand, tends to piss me off. I'll let you, dear reader, chew on that one yourselves, but here's a hint: the difference is a simple matter of intention, and no one likes being condescended to or colonized. We all think we know better, but that's missing the point completely.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


This blog has been rendezvousing at Psych Central. I'll soon be referencing a bunch of comments that were posted to that site but cannot be read here. If you'd like to read up on those conversations and/or add your own thoughts, please go ahead and visit my reposts of The Handsome Daughter, Little Monsters (Part One), and Little Monsters (Part Two).

Little Monsters (Part Four) coming soon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Little Monsters (Part Three)

Not long after the incident recounted in Part Two of this Little Monsters series, I received the latest installment of the Growing Parent Newsletter from Growing Child. In a piece entitled "Needed: The support of others," Carol Gestwicki gives calm and clear voice to a perspective I'd been needing to hear for months. I can't help but quote her at length. She writes:
A friend recently sent me a link to a blog that started with a mother asking the advice of others about how to travel with her several small children across the country by plane during the holidays— to visit a sick father, as it turned out.

What was fairly shocking was the amount of virulent anti-child feeling that her question elicited.

Readers responded with comments such as she should just stay home, and why didn’t she think of that before she had the children?

Now, granted, I have had my share of annoying experiences with kids kicking the back of my seat and wailing babies. But the idea that parents and their children do not have the right to participate in the world with the rest of us is deplorable.

There is probably not a one of us who has not felt the grip of desperation when our young children just were unable to be reasonable and self-controlled when out in public.

For whatever reason, perhaps fatigue and strangeness made them into persons with whom we would rather not have admitted kinship.

Surely those of us who are not currently in the throes of parenting young children can have a modicum of sympathy for those parents who are trying to get through an experience with their sometimes-out-of-control offspring.

Whatever happened to the notion that we’re all in this together, that those of us who are coping okay can lend a hand to those who need some extra help?

Parents are able to do their best job of being patient when they feel supported, not harassed.

When children feel that their parents are calm and in control, that helps them remember the life lessons they are gradually learning about appropriate behavior.

Why should parents even have to ask for the help and tolerance of onlookers, who have no doubt been in similar positions at some point in their lives?

Surely as a people we have not become so caught up in our own lives and preferences that we cannot help and support parents in doing their most important work -- guiding their young children and getting them through new or difficult situations.

Certainly it is difficult to not turn around and see where all the noise is coming from in a public setting. And it is human nature to wonder why someone is not tending to that child. And yet, a moment’s reflection will bring to mind with a memorable clarity those moments when we were close enough to that situation to see (or be) the parent trying everything possible to soothe a distressed baby or child.

So, whether you are a parent who has found yourself in situations where you desperately feel the need for help and support, or someone who could easily give that help (rather than disapproval), let’s remember that it is in the best interests of us all to help children feel that the world around them supports them and their parents.

Then they will want to become a part of that loving community, and we all are strengthened.

I felt a tremendous sense of relief after reading this. It was as if someone had taken the jumbled, exhausted mess of my thoughts, tended to them with patience and loving care, and now here they were again, clean and freshly pressed after a good long nap, hair combed and everything. "That's my post," I thought. "That's what I wanted to say."

But something was off. It seemed ... so simple. Suspiciously simple. Was it really this simple?

Of course not.

If human beings were regularly as even-keeled, forgiving, unselfish, and kind as Gestwicki invites us to be, things would be verging on world peace. I suppose her vision is possible in the same way that peace is possible - anything is possible, right? - but an honest look at history makes certain idealistic visions seem more than a bit naive.

Which is not to say we shouldn't give voice to such optimism, strive for it ourselves, and urge others to do so as well. I return to Gestwicki's words again and again the way my daughter seeks out her blankie when she's running low on her usual confidence and energy. And as we all know, having a blankie is golden.

Still, blankie or no blankie, we must cope with the real world. Which is to say: here comes the series finale, better known as Part Four.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Little Monsters (Part Two)

After weeks of avoiding the question of who – if anyone – has the right to judge the relative success or failure of parents, I had an experience that bumped the subject to the forefront of my mind.

What was intended to be a brief, last-minute trip to the grocery store before my daughter's dinner, bath, and bedtime turned into a late-running, lengthy fiasco thanks to rush hour traffic and a glut of people with the same idea. As I wove my shopping cart through the congested aisles, I couldn't help but notice the same black-haired, blue-eyed boy over and over again; seven years old but already strikingly handsome, this kid was tearing around the store, parting the crowd everywhere he went with a child-sized cart-cum-battering ram. A little sister rushed after him, always a few steps behind but positively glowing with admiration and exhilaration. Then the father, also handsome but less striking for his lack of devilish glee, which appeared to have been replaced with a willfully vacant stare and hangdog mug. Not once did I see him speak to or look at either of his children. In fact, the only thing connecting him to these kids was their undeniable resemblance and vague but consistent conga line.

By the time I was ready to check out, my daughter was hungry and tired and on the verge. The lines were depressingly long so I looked for one harboring babies or small children, knowing the very sight of other kids is usually enough to keep mine entertained. There in the nearest line were those mischievous blue eyes, so I maneuvered into position behind him and his family.

All went according to plan until my daughter, now out of the cart and nestled in my arms for a better view of the kids, turned her head suddenly and cracked it against mine. After ten dreadful seconds of silent, wide-eyed, open-mouthed limbo, she unleashed her most devastated/devastating caliber and decibel of screaming sobs.

Yes, the entire store seemed to hush and turn in unison horror towards us. (I'm pretty sure this actually happened.) Yes, it was stressful and uncomfortable and embarrassing, but I decided to ignore my surroundings as best I could and focus on comforting my overextended baby. The boy and his sister were staring, so I smiled at them and hoped they might take up the cause of cheering her.

This is not what happened. Instead, the boy's watchful expression spread into a roguish sneer. He turned to his little sister, took a deep breath, and let out a fake wail. "Wah!" he jeered. "WAHHHH!" His sister's eyes widened. Then she grinned hugely and joined in, the two of them giggling and mocking with wicked delight.

I was completely taken off guard by their meanness. For a moment I dared to hope that their teasing would accidentally entertain and soothe my unhappy child, but it only freaked her out on top of everything else. I checked my anger by telling myself that these were just kids being kids, that they didn't know any better, but these thoughts inspired questions: Where's the adult? Why isn't anyone stepping in to stop them from taunting a crying baby and explain why such behavior is unacceptable?

Suddenly I remembered the man - the one I assumed was their father - and looked for him. There he was, still waiting in line, standing less than a foot in front of his kids, averting his eyes and doing his best to appear preternaturally oblivious to the chaos that was unfolding directly beside him.

My anger grew. I turned away from the kids and began murmuring to my daughter. The woman in line behind me caught my eye and smiled, shaking her head. She motioned toward the little boy. "Ugh," she said.

"At least my disruption's still a baby," I said, a little louder than necessary. "I wonder what their excuse is."

Needless to say, this interaction got me thinking about the whole judging-of-parents question once more. And then, like magic, more inspiration fell into my lap. Again, stay tuned.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Little Monsters (Part One)

I've been planning to tackle the ever-popular question of whether or not "non-parents" are entitled to judge the technique and misbehaving children of "parents." Such a post has been requested by a bunch of people, some who have children and some who do not.

For instance, when I began kicking around the idea of starting a blog about the bizarre social consequences of becoming a parent, my friend Sarah wrote:
I have seen some weird *ss mothering in SF. Unfortunately, a few situations that have haunted me over the years. I have also gotten into fights with friends about parenting--which is the worst, especially when I am told I have no moral authority because I "don't have a child." I call this the Puritan vs the Quaker fight. Puritans don't take their children to fancy restaurants and let them bawl and scream at the top of their lungs (that's what family restaurants were created for). Quakers feel it is important to let children do as they like wherever and whenever. I am of the camp to take children outside, to the car, to the bathroom (anywhere that won't interfere with other diners/people's ear drums) and let said child express themselves--which is sort of a combination parenting of Quaker and Puritan because let's face it, melt-downs do happen. Having to avoid friends that don't have what I consider to be social boundaries when it comes to their kids is a very confusing place to be.

Sarah's musings soured me on the subject for awhile. It’s not that I disagree with her necessarily; her characterization of a Puritan and Quaker parenting binary is certainly funny and as good a place to start as any.

No, my problem is that you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent more uncomfortable with unleashing her child's soul-shattering screams upon the public than I. If there was a way to avoid such experiences completely, I’d have found it long ago. While I strive to be graceful in the face of my daughter’s public meltdowns, I continue to struggle with this aspect of parenting.

Sarah’s comment reminded me not only that most people claim the moral authority to judge parents, but also that different people have different standards for pretty much everything. What is a “fancy” restaurant? When is a child “interfering”? It’s these discrepancies more than anything that freak out the people-pleasing part of me since they are the source of certain extremely unpleasant interactions, a.k.a. conflicts. The task of revisiting those times when my daughter has caused a public disruption, not to mention the probable judgments such disruptions evoked from strangers, is particularly unappealing to me.

Still, the topic lingered, dormant but humming in the back of my mind. More impressively, it seemed to follow me around for a time, giving me more than enough fodder for a multi-part blog post. Which is to say: stay tuned.