My sister-in-law was at the store, wrangling her toddler’s stroller into the back of her van. In an instant her five-year-old ran off through the parking lot, the apex of misbehavior that any parent worth her stripes has tattooed on her brain, and who has consistently warned her child against since he was old enough to put one foot in front of the other.
As she struggled with the small vehicle that she was muscling into her larger vehicle, along with her toddler, one eye blinking against her son’s brazen misconduct, an older lady yelled out her car window, “Learn how to parent your child!”
My sister-in-law stared in shock at the woman, who went on to harp, “Don’t look so insulted. Your kid was going to run in front of the car!”
Completely taken aback, my sister-in-law shuffled her kids into the car, frazzled and probably a little embarrassed that a stranger not only witnessed this whole unfortunate incident, but felt the need to give her a little drive-by parenting lesson on top of it.
When my daughter was a newborn she screamed for two hours every evening for six weeks. She was a clock with a horrible, nerve-rattling alarm. My husband would come home from work to a wailing baby and a wife nearly out of her mind. I don’t even remember what our two-year-old did during these times. He was probably parked in front of the television - I was consumed with soothing this baby.
The only thing that got her to stop screaming was a ridiculous routine that involved me moving furniture, holding her tightly against my chest, and dancing wildly around our living room to the Chicago soundtrack turned up as loud as I could stand. It was a one-woman, one-baby Broadway dance show up in here. No other music would calm her cries.
I can assure you that no baby book at the time advised new parents to sing the Cell Block Tango at 120 decibels to their infant as a treatment for colic. But it worked for us, and I will never forget those memories, no matter how much I dreamed about running away just to get some peace at that time.
Parenting is hard. We read books, go online for advice and tips, and try everything that we can think of to get things right. But sometimes we just have to get to a place where things aren’t right but are merely manageable. And sometimes we fail anyway. We sit around kitchen tables with our girlfriends and lament: this child is having trouble with math, that child won’t eat vegetables, this one has a mouth like a truck driver, that one has this friend I don’t trust. Our friends nod and commiserate. We’re going through that, too.
Then someone says, “Have you tried this? How about that? This worked for us. You should try it, too.” Your eyes glaze over at the barrage of advice that suggests flaws in your master skill set. You can’t believe that she would think that you haven’t tried each and every thing imaginable to handle this issue. You feel like she thinks you are less than. You look at your friend as if she’s judging, as if she thinks she’s a better parent than you. She crossed the line.
It’s not always your friend that gives unwarranted advice about parenting. You do it, too. Okay, maybe you don’t. But I have. I do. The result is the same; unless the other person asks for specific advice, she feels judged by your suggestions, not helped.
My sister-in-law felt judged by that woman who yelled after her in the parking lot. Did she think that my nephew had never been told to run in the parking lot? Is having a child who never ran in a parking lot the culmination of parenting success?
The world is so competitive. We are all programmed to compare, to judge, to tromp on the foreheads of other people, even people we may know, just to get to the head of the line. And we are expected to fix. Don’t sit in your mess. Clean it up. Make it better. It’s so easy to tell others what to do. It’s hard to help, even when asked. It’s harder still to sit by and watch people do things their way instead of ours.
The trouble is – life is messy. Some things can’t be fixed; we can just commiserate. We can’t jump to conclusions that a parent hasn’t exhausted all options to parent better. We can’t learn how to do everything right. Sometimes a kid is going to run through a parking lot no matter how many times we have told them not to. And we all need to be more understanding about that.