I push my almost-full cart through the grocery store, distracted by the high-pitched squeal of my 2-year-old. “We’re almost done,” I repeat for the seventh time, but she’s not having it. I quickly grab my last few items and head to the checkout line, feeling the stares of the other customers as my toddler’s cries reach a fever pitch. My jaw tightens and a harsh “Shhhh! That’s enough,” escapes my clenched teeth.
That doesn’t help, of course. As I load my items onto the belt, I open a box of cookies and hand one to my daughter. A woman behind me says to her friend, loud enough for me to hear, “If my kid started to throw a fit, I’d scoop her up and leave the store right then and there. You have to teach them that they can’t fuss to get what they want.” I’m too exhausted and frustrated to explain that leaving the store is exactly what my daughter wants.
* * *
My 5-year-old comes up to me as I’m chatting with another mom at the playground. He waits for a pause in the conversation, then says, “Excuse me, Mama. May I please have a snack?”
“Of course, in just a minute, OK?” I answer.
“K,” he responds, then skips off to the swings.
“Wow!” says the mom. “He’s so polite and well-mannered! How did you do that?”
I just smile. Should I tell her that what just happened was an anomaly? Should I tell her that on any normal day, he interrupts, forgets to say “please,” and has a conniption if he can’t have a snack the moment he decides he needs one? Or do I let her think he behaves like this all the time?
* * *
I take my 8-year-old for a checkup with a new doctor. She talks my ear off the whole car ride there—nervous chatter. I remind her of the techniques for fending off the anxiety she’s always had about doctor’s visits and meeting new people. When we arrive at the office, the receptionist starts asking her questions about her favorite school subjects, her hobbies, and the books she likes. My daughter clams up and looks at me after each question, as if wanting me to hand her an answer. I recognize that this is just the anxiety, but the friendly receptionist doesn’t. “I’m asking you, sweetie, not your mom,” she says. She smiles, but her eyes glance my way as if to ask why I haven’t bothered to teach my kid basic social skills.
* * *
If you judge my parenting based on any given five-minute snippet, you could easily think I was either a totally rotten parent or the greatest mother in the world. Yet I regularly witness strangers, and even some friends, make such judgments of other moms. I don’t know how anyone who has had kids can feel justified in that habit unless their kids are totally abnormal.
The truth is, for the most part, parenting on any given day is a crapshoot. Sometimes my kids behave so impressively that even I am astounded. If you judged my mothering based on my kids’ best moments, hours, or days, you’d probably wish you had my stellar child-rearing skills.
On the other hand, my kids can also be total maniacs. Some days the wheels fall off the cart, a perfect storm hits, and my offspring behave in ways that make me shake my head in disbelief. If you judged my mothering based on those moments, hours, or days, you might assume I was completely inept at basic discipline and nurturing.
You can’t make any accurate judgments or assumptions—good or bad—about people’s parenting from witnessing a narrow window of interaction. If a kid misbehaves in public, you might think you’d handle it differently, but you don’t know that family’s whole story. Maybe the kid has special needs. Maybe the mom is trying out a new technique. Maybe she’s done what you think you would do, and it didn’t work for her kid. Maybe they’re both having a rotten day.
It’s tempting to think that another mom’s perfectly behaved child means she has it all together, but you don’t know how that kid behaves the other 99% of the time. Maybe he’s a nightmare at bedtime. Maybe he’s perfect as long as he’s fed and has slept well but becomes a bear if he’s hungry or tired. Maybe you just caught him on a good day when the stars aligned just right.
It’s easy to judge a mom who speaks too harshly or who appears to be paying too little attention or who seems to hover too much, but you don’t know what’s happening in her life. Maybe she just lost a loved one. Maybe she’s recently been laid off and is struggling to find another job. Maybe she has special needs of her own.
So aside from any actual abuse, let’s cut parents we see in public a little slack. We could all benefit from a little compassion and understanding that a five-minute snippet of someone’s life is not indicative of who they are as a parent. We are not defined by our worst moments; it’s only fair to give parents the grace we hope others would extend to us.