Sunday, October 7, 2007

Judging Ourselves

Isn't it funny how we judge each other and, most of all, judge ourselves as parents? I think parenting is SO difficult that we're always looking at ourselves trying to make sure we're not screwing it up too badly, and we can't help but look at others and apply the same standards to them that we apply to ourselves.

The other day, 3 different Blogs I read had posts about how people parent in public - and how they see themselves or how they see others or how others see them. I was so struck by the common thread running through these posts that I had to write about it here.

On Mojo of a Mama Tara talks about how, before she was a mother, she would see all these parental behaviors, or parental reactions to their children's behaviors and would judge those parents and swear to never be like them. Or really I should say maternal behaviors and reactions - because she, like most of us, tended to judge mothers - not fathers.

Isn't it funny how we tend to be so much harder on ourselves than the fathers of our children? And how basically, if we see men out in public with children, as long as the kids are in one piece and don't have blood pouring out of them, we just assume he's a fantastic father, regardless of how the kids are behaving.

I have to admit that, like Tara I had it altogether as a mother, before I had kids. I had all sorts of ideals about how kids should act and how their parents should make them act that way. Then this little person came out of my body and started really teaching me what parenting is all about - and it's not about teaching your kid how to march along quietly, like a little automaton, to avoid disturbing the childless masses around you. Fortunately, I've learned, like Tara, that it's about my kids - not about me.

I also learned more about this when I went from one kid to two. Not just because two are more difficult to wrangle in public. But really because I finally learned that some of my oldest child's good behavior had MUCH more to do with her personality than with my parenting. There's nothing like having a REALLY willful second child to make you look back at all the times you looked down your nose at someone else's kid's bad behavior, thinking, "Well, when kids act like THAT, the mother parents must be doing something wrong," and realize that you were really being a self-congratulatory ass. I swear, with Spice, I have these revelations on a daily basis.

On the same day I read Tara's post, Elizabeth on The Whole Family, wrote about witnessing a mother acting out during a children's football game and shared her thoughts about disciplining kids in public. Basically, her position is that it just is not appropriate for parents to discipline their kids in public. She feels that it's fine to pull them aside and quietly reprimand them, but any overt discipline in front of others makes the witnesses uncomfortable, embarrasses the child - and is just flat out rude. I both agree and disagree with her on this. On the one hand, I don't believe in humiliating children, in public or private. On the other hand I do think that consequences need to be immediate with kids.

Kids live in the moment and I think putting off consequences can be both unfair and unproductive. The immediacy is gone and the child is in a whole other mindset if you wait until later.

I also think there are so many different levels and such a variety of circumstances when a parent reprimands a child in public. Certainly there are parents who yell and scream and berate, or hit their kids and this is definitely inappropriate. But I think that kind of behavior is inappropriate in private as well. Similarly, I think that any time a parent is sitting back and yelling out to a kid rather than getting up and getting involved (like the mother mentioned on The Whole Family), that's a problem. I don't think hitting or berating or yelling out at a child while sitting on one's butt is a good idea anyplace or under any circumstances. But talking to a child and reminding them of how they should behave, or mildly chastising a kid in public is, I think, fine.

There's also those situations where mom is just at the end of her rope. I can't imagine that anyone has not found themselves someplace at sometime reacting to their child's behavior in a less than pleasant manner. We all lose our temper sometimes. Haven't we all had moments, public and private when we think, "OH CRAP! I can't believe I just said THAT to my kid! What kind of a parent am I?" And certainly, when those moments happen in public we cringe that much more because we know that others are looking at us and judging us for our actions - and we wonder if they can possibly think any worse of us than we are thinking of ourselves.

Which leads me to the third post I read regarding all this. Susie, over at the Inner Toddler wrote about having a what she calls a "mommy dearest moment." I am always sorry to admit when I've gotten pleasure from someone else's misery, but oh, my goodness her rehashing of losing her temper with her toddler in JFK airport had me in hysterics!

For me Susie's experience is just the quintessential mommy moment. Parenting is filled with crazy, no-win situations like standing in the airport with a ton of luggage, an infant and a small child who needs to use the bathroom. Times when you're forced to make decisions that don't seem quite right, but under the circumstances you can't see another way to go. Decisions that take you down paths that you never wanted to go down - never imagined you'd go down. Because how easy is it to forget that kids just couldn't care less about logic. And how frustrating is it to find yourself in desperate need of your child suddenly becoming a logical being? And how hard is it to maintain adult thought and control in those moments when it becomes clear that nothing you do will give you anywhere near the outcome you need?

And how often is the outcome we're striving for - and yet doing our worst at achieving, to not look like a crappy parent in front of others?

And that's really the common thread in these posts to me - how much what others think of us influences how we parent in public. We all react to that in one way or another, I think. I certainly know I am. Sometimes it's for the better - like when I'm at the end of my rope with my toddler and really want to fuss at her, but instead stop and encourage her to do what I want in a more positive way because I know others are looking. Sometimes, it's for the worst, like how I used to reprimand Sugar in front of family members who I knew expected misbehavior to to be handled swiftly and sternly.

The latter situation was born of nasty combination of insecurity and lingering pre-child ideals of how to handle kids. I was afraid to parent the way I felt was best in front of people who I thought might know better. When Sugar was little, I was still finding my way as a parent, still wondered if maybe the sterner way I was raised was the right way - though I instinctively felt it wasn't the way for me. So in front of family I did what I thought they expected - but immediately followed it with what felt right for me. Often Sugar's misbehavior would be met with, "Come with me, young lady, let's go talk about what you've done!" And I would march her off to an empty room where I would cuddle and nurse her, because I could see she was just over-tired or over-stimulated. Now, with Spice, I have the confidence that 8 years of parenting a really good kid will give you, so I tend to just plop myself down and nurse her, or remove her more gently from the situation.

When I think of all the reasons I have been a less than pleasant parent in public - inexperience, insecurity, frustration, exhaustion and I know how hard I was on myself for my behavior, I have to look a little more kindly on other mothers I may see acting out at their kids.

I have certainly looked down my nose at more than one mother - taking her behavior at that moment as an indictment of her parenting in general. And I know I need to check myself on that, because I think it really hurts all of us as mothers when we're so quick to look down on each other, rather than giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

Because, the reality is - I think - more often than not, it's the public behavior that's an anomaly. I think most of us are good mothers who care and are conscientious. That most of us take these moments and learn from them.

I think most of us have the courage to be our best by admitting to our children that we lost it and giving them the apology they deserve. That we can not just dismiss our actions, but look back on them and learn from them.

Because in the end, it is our worst parenting moments give us the opportunity to become better parents. These are the moments that shake us up, that make us think. These are the moments that make us reevaluate our ideals and our plans and our actions. These are the moments that makes us realize that sometimes we need to slow down, or try to do less at once or just take a moment and enjoy our kids. These moments are our speed bumps, so to speak.

And as we slow down and catch ourselves in the act of some not so great behavior, wouldn't it be nice to look up and see a face giving us an "I've been there" smile? Next time I see a mom losing it, I'm going to try to remember to be that face.


The Bear Maiden said...

The only thing I get annoyed at, when watching other parents, is when they ignore their kid. Yes, there are times when the kid has been screaming/and/or disruptive for some time, and then you just ignore them cuz there's nothing more you can do. I'm talking about a kid in obvious discomfort, or trying to get their parents attention, or about to do something dangerous like toddle down a flight of steep stairs in McDonald's while she's playing a game on her cell phone... stuff like that. We've ALL experienced meltdowns in Target, or the Supermarket, or on the subway (nothing like a crowded subway for a meltdown!). And for those moms I'll usually offer a smile and a nod and an "I've been there" if I can catch their eye.

I also don't like it when parents scream curses at their kids, or slap them stupid for some minor infraction like throwing up on the train. I picked up a tip once... when you a see parent engaged in borderline-to-overt abusive behaviour... GET INVOLVED. Try to engage the parent by saying something like "tough day, huh?" or offer a smile... something to break their concentration. I know this is an extreme thought on your post :) but as a frequent subway rider I see stuff like this all the time.

And you know I'm an "Equal Opportunity Hater" :) and I'm as harsh on dads as I am on moms, cuz there's just no excuse.

And reprimanding in public... I got over that fear real quick. Cuz little kids are like kittens or puppies... it does no good to reprimand them after the fact. But if you think ahead to useful strategies, when something happens you're not caught off guard. Another REALLY useful thing I picked up is to decide in advance what behaviours you'll tolerate, and what battles are worth fighting. That way you don't find yourself engaging in a stupid battle. This is useful for both private and public battles...

Parenting ain't easy, though, that's fur sure :) and I DEFINITELY am a different parent than I thought I'd be... but I thank God that I was pleasantly surprised by my patience, because that was always my biggest fear... that I wouldn't be patient enough.

Anonymous said...

I, also, KNEW just how to be a parent before I ever had my son. While expecting I would see bad behavior in public and think, "I'll never let my son do that." or "I'd handle that situation this way, not like they are." But after he was born, that was a different story. I didn't know what I was talking about. I still expect good behavior from my son, but I realize that he's a 4 year old BOY and he will misbehave.

Thanks for this post. I enjoyed it.

Elizabeth F. said...

Great post. I got a lot out of reading it. I may not have stated everything clearly in my psot, but I totally agree that if a child does something inappropriate it should be dealt with immediately. You can pull a child to the side and talk without everyone hearing you and there are many times I march my kids right into the restroom to talk about it. The thing that really annoys me is embarrassing the child in front of others or spanking in public, etc... I just think those things make everyone uncomfortable. Yes, there are times that we all lose it, even in public. I've been there many times myself. The thing is that when you see behaviors that you don't like in others you can make a mental note to never do that yourself.