By now, we’ve all heard the story: Mom Babble editor Mary Katherine Backstrom saw a bunch of teenagers being cruel to a man with a cranial deformity. Rather than stand by and watch, she marched up and bitched them out. As we reported, “[She] asked how they thought the man would feel if he knew they were mocking him. She let them know she saw what they were doing, and she was disappointed in their actions.”
Then she stood by and waited for their mom to pick them up because she’s a badass like that. She told the other mom the scoop. And the other mom was grateful because now she not only knew about the behavior, she could also handle it on her own when they got home.
I can only pray that when my kids are assholes in public, there’s some badass mama ready to yank them up short and then make sure I know about it because we need our village back, and we need it badly. Most importantly, we need it to help parent our children.
This happened to me all the time growing up in a small town. When my sister and I were chucking stuff out a second-floor window, retrieving it, and chucking it out again, at the tender ages of 6 and 7, someone found my parents and told them. When I was painting the neighbor’s car with a blade of grass and snow meltwater (don’t ask), she barreled on up and told me to stop it in no uncertain terms. She told my mom, who decided she was batty — but I got a weary “Don’t touch other people’s cars, honey.” A neighbor marched up to my dad and told him that I’d clawed his daughter’s shoulder — after he chewed me out for it.
Eyes were everywhere, and those eyes knew where to find my parents, so I knew I had better behave myself in public or get punished at home.
Now my kids could run the neighborhood like a pack of wolves, and while people might yell at them to quit their deviant behavior, they’re not going to tell me about it. This is no way to live. It’s no way for our society to function, it’s no way for our kids to learn to act right, and it’s no way for us to parent to the best of our ability. Instead, I hope that when my kids are acting like little assholes, injuring people or damaging property, doing things dangerous to themselves or others, and most of all, being cruel, someone will step in. Someone with authority and guts to handle it. And then that someone will call me, so that I can handle it too.
I’m not stopping there though. I want my village to help even more. If my 3-year-old is throwing an epic Target tantrum, and I’m clearly using every parenting technique I can think of, a fresh voice — a strange voice! — can help diffuse everything. “You should listen to your mama. She loves you,” an older man once told my unruly boys. They stopped dead, minds blown. They looked at me as if I’d tell him off, but I smiled wearily instead. And my kids stopped because they realized other people could see them act the fool and call them out.
We often threaten our kids: “Everyone can see you acting like this. Aren’t you embarrassed?” Wouldn’t it be nice if those other people wandered over and actually embarrassed them? Not cruelly, of course. Not overbearingly or in such a way that they’re parenting over me (there are obviously boundaries), but some nice mama could stroll on by and say, “What a terrible tantrum. My younger kids used to do that. It’s horrible, isn’t it? You feel helpless, and they look ridiculous flapping on the floor like a dying flounder.” She’s being sympathetic to you while dropping a truth bomb on the kid. They learn there are eyes everywhere. It really helps.
This is super-important on the playground. For the love of all things holy, if you see my kid throwing sand, even if it’s not at your kid, just tell him to stop it. Then ask him who his mom is, march over, and inform me that the dark-haired moppet in the Spinosaurus T-shirt was flinging sand. I will thank you. Tell me when my kid hogs the swing, or pushes someone down, or snatches a bucket and pail. My sister-in-law bawls out my kids like they’re her own flesh and blood, and I’m grateful for it. She apologizes to me afterwards. I wave it away. “Nope, if you see it first, it’s fair game,” I say. “And as long as you don’t parent over me, I don’t give a flying fuck.”
Because she’s part of the village.
And the village has a right to see my children grow up into not-assholes. That’s hard to do when the village doesn’t do its job — when no one tells my kids to stop throwing rocks; when no one pipes in with a sympathetic word for my 3-year-old’s tantrum; when the Target clerk ignores my kid opening and closing the check-writing desk, over and over, without making a peep. If I can’t see it, by all means, nicely tell him to cut it out. The same with littering — speak the fuck up if you see my kids drop an empty juice box or a straw wrapper like a pampered little emperor. Tell them loudly, pointedly, “You dropped something, son.”
There are limits, of course, and if we want to have/participate in the village, we need to acknowledge those boundaries. Don’t shame my kid. Don’t hurl insults. Don’t intervene while I’m actively parenting, and definitely don’t touch him (unless you’re saving him from danger) or I will go all mama bear on your ass.
But feel free to offer some gentle words to my littles. And maybe some not-so-gentle words when they’re older — something like “I’m disappointed in you,” or what Backstrom told those cruel Target kids, and a line about how it affects others (for example, “Soda bowling in a Walmart aisle means an employee has to pick all that crap up. How do you think that makes that person feel?”)
So help me out here, village. The world needs more Mary Katherine Backstroms. My life needs more Mary Katherine Backstroms. Don’t be afraid to step in, speak up, show support. We all want to raise good humans. But we can’t do it alone.