Saturday, July 01, 2006

Judge Not

Shortly after the Bub was born, I picked up a complimentary copy of a popular parenting magazine, in which the editor reminisced fondly about her favourite moment as a mother: she and her daughter were walking through a mall when they saw a woman pushing her crying baby along in a stroller. "Why doesn’t she pick that baby up?" the little girl asked, and her mother sighed happily. "I must have done something right," she mused, realizing that she had been so attentive a parent that her daughter had absorbed her (attachment) parenting philosophy (cue the heavy-handed moralizing on the importance of Responding to Every Cry). Isn’t that nice, I reflected – this woman’s favourite parenting moment is not related to an expression of affection from her lovely daughter, nor to a particularly charming phrase or antic – no, her favourite moment arises from that warm, fuzzy feeling that is generated only when mother and daughter join together in shared condemnation of someone else’s parenting skills.

Before I became a parent, I did an informal survey of some friends, asking them how they reacted when they saw children misbehaving in public places. Let’s say a six-year-old girl is throwing a screaming fit in the grocery store, or a three-year-old boy is biting other toddlers at his pre-school. Do you assume that the child’s behaviour is the result of too little (or perhaps too much) discipline, or do you feel compassion for the parents who have to deal with a child who’s a real handful? Most respondents tended to blame the parents, though several of my friends qualified their remarks by saying they reach that conclusion only when the child’s behaviour is met with an inappropriate or inadequate parental response. Seems reasonable, I thought – no one can blame you for judging someone when you actually see the poor parenting in action.

I recalled that long-ago survey a few months ago when I read Daniel Isn’t Talking, Marti Leimbach’s novel about raising an autistic son. The heroine, Melanie, visits a grocery store and tries to elicit language from her son by withholding his cookie until he verbally asks for it. He melts down, screaming and trying to jump head-first out of the cart, so she desperately stabs open the package with her thumbnail and he starts working his way through it – the whole package – while his sister begs for her share of chocolate digestives. The scene is disintegrating rapidly, as is Melanie herself, when a woman approaches:

I am used to people making comments about my kids – or rather about Daniel – and I prepare myself for what she might say. I just wish I were in a better frame of mind to hear it. That I had some witty or insulting remark I could make back. But my throat is full of pepper and my eyes feel like they are boiling. I just want to run. If she’d get out of my way now I might do just that. But instead she stops before me and looks at Daniel, then me.
"He’s lovely," she says.


When I first read that chapter of the novel, I was so blindsided by those words that I burst into tears. I come to this issue from a different standpoint, perhaps, than others. When I was four years old, my family changed forever: my little sister – a red-haired dynamo we had nicknamed "Smiley" – learned to walk. And run. And jump. And bounce off the walls of our home perpetually for the next twenty years (at which point she moved out and got her own walls to bounce off of). During those twenty years, I never went on a family outing without facing reproving glances as my sister burbled on with her too-loud and never-ending commentary, or ran rampant through the restaurant, pausing occasionally to point out a baby (jumping up and down with glee) or climb up into an empty chair, looking up at the less-than-amused strangers with her trademark mischievous grin.

In those days, what she had was called learning disabilities and hyperactivity; the terminology ADHD wasn’t in use, but my sense is that those four little letters wouldn’t even begin to cover it. My mother always felt that she suffered from an excess of happiness, a zest for life that simply could not be contained, that didn’t allow her to sit still, or listen when others were speaking, or to restrain any of the socially inappropriate impulses that have led, over the years, to much teasing and ostracism from her peers.

There was no stone my mother left unturned when dealing with my sister: she tried elimination diets, Ritalin, speech therapy, tutoring, the Montessori school (until she got kicked out), the Waldorf school (ditto), spanking, homeopathic remedies, and prayer. At the end of the day, my sister is who she is: the #1 Favourite Aunt to Bub and Pie (with a hand-painted t-shirt to prove it), an irrepressible optimist, and a much-beleaguered and put-upon friend to any number of people who have figured our that she’s willing to do just about anything to avoid conflict. Over the years, many, many people have blamed my mother for my sister’s behaviour – not just strangers, either, but even the mother of one of my sister’s classmates, a woman who on one memorable occasion asked my mother politely, "Have you ever tried disciplining your daughter?"

So when I see children acting out and misbehaving, I tend to err on the side of compassion for the parents. And when I see a mother pushing her screaming baby in a stroller, I think of what I’ll tell my children when they ask me why that baby is crying. "Sometimes babies cry when they’re tired," I might say. "That mother is pushing the stroller to help the baby fall asleep." Or perhaps I’ll explain, "The baby is hungry, and the mother is hurrying to get to a quiet place where she can nurse." I’ll say something so that my children will realize that the sight of a crying baby – or a screaming toddler – or a wild and out-of-control preschooler – is an opportunity to exercise some empathy, a bit of compassion, not a time to pat ourselves on the back. (Hearing echoes now of Go, Dog, Go!: "Night is not a time for play. It is a time for sleep." So gentle, yet so dictatorial. How ’bout this: "When a baby is crying, it is not a time to gloat. It is a time to be nice.")



#1 Favourite Aunt

21 comments:

Piece of Work said...

Yes! Another fantastic post. I've actually had these conversations with my son. "Babies cry" I usually tell him. "Sometimes they are hungry or tired or frustrated and they don't have words yet, so they cry."
I'm kind of amazed at how annoyed other parents get if your child is misbehaving in public. IN the blogosphere, especially it seems, parents love to go on about how kids these days are not disciplined enough. We are all doing the best we can. At least, that is where I like to start from, believing that.

metro mama said...

Well said!

kim said...

What a fantastic thing to teach your children...empathy! It's actually a word that people dont even think of enough these days. I have struggled to raise children who have compassion and empathy and at the same time not to take notice of rude judgemental people and Im damn proud of them! Hopefully it will help them while our Baby Terror hopefully grows out of his terrible twos :)

sunshine scribe said...

Congrats on your PIMP and your Perfect Post. I'd have to say this one is worthy of another (of each award). This was well said. Empathy is one of the greatest gifts you can teach your child.

It was so very good to meet you last night.

Emily said...

You have such a good heart and are so understanding, B&P. I too have compassion for the mothers/fathers/children themselves, because I am mother to a high-intensity/high-needs/spirited child. It makes me sad when others can't see his wonderful qualities. Heck, I bet the baby Jesus was spirited! These kids are a joy (though yes, often pains in the butt...well, challenging let's say). Also, hey, most of us grow up and learn to stop jumping into fountains at the local public square (unless we become well-paid cast members of a certain cheesy American TV show).

nonlineargirl said...

To echo that stranger, that was lovely. Before I had kids I know I attributed behavior more to parenting, now I rarely do.

something blue said...

I loved that your mother felt that your sister "suffered from an excess of happiness, a zest for life that simply could not be contained..." I think that is a better, more fitting label than the ones that are so quickly handed out today.

I too hope my children will have loads of compassion and empathy.

Mommy off the Record said...

I love it. I love that your first impulse is to support the mother. I don't think I would have really been able to empathize with mothers like this before I had my own child. I remember looking at mommies handing their keys to their babies in the grocery store to give them something to play with. I'd always think, "Ew. What are they doing? Those keys are probably dirty!"

Now? Keys are the only thing that will quiet my son when I'm struggling to put him in his carseat. Now keys have become his favorite toy.

moonstruckmama said...

Yes, yes, yes. I always catch myself when I accidentally witness another parent's struggle in a public place--stop looking! I tell myself (usually it's not intentional, like glancing at a car wreck...) because I know what it's like when other parents shoot that judgmental "Why are you so incompetent?" look my way.

lildb said...

what a wonderful gift to give to those parents who are silently struggling with their emotions as they handle the dynamite-strapped situations the high-energy kids constantly dole out.

it really speaks to my general sense that our culture currently disdains the child-bearing members within that culture; and I must, at some point, figure out how to encase that sense into the right words and post on the mofo. 'cause it's getting kinda ridiculous.

it's you, and people like you, who articulate the reasons for a compassionate reaction on behalf of the parents, who will shed some much-needed light on the subject.

I heart you beyond words, G.

xo

Caryn said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you for the reminder to have compassion when watching others' children misbehave. It's all too easy to judge, after all. And the "He's lovelY" comment just about sent me over the edge with its sweetness. Sometimes we do get what we need instead of what we fear.

mamatulip said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent post.

Worthy of all three excellent's. :)

Brensmama said...

Great post! Prior to my son becoming an infamous "toddler" I was very quick to judge parents by their children's behavior. And then before I knew it, I was the one dealing with discipline issues all day long. Because I know I am a caring, concerned mother who believes in appropriate discipline, I know my child's behavior is not 100% my fault...although come on, none of us are perfect, right? But it has made me much more compassionate and sympathetic to other parents because I know we ALL have our hands full at times.

Jen
http://homeschooling.youngparentsmagazine.com

Mega Mom said...

No wonder you fit in so beautifully with those TO ladies. You are all amazingly compassionate, empathetic, warm and graceful. You tell stories descriptively and effortlessly. Canada (and your parents) must be doing something right :)

bubandpie said...

Piece of Work, Kim, Caryn, Brensmama - So nice to see your fresh new faces around here. (MOTR, thanks for sharing your readers with me!)

Nonlinear Girl, MOTR - I think the "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is less about hellfire and more about what-goes-around-comes-around: everytime I dare to judge people, I end up in their position eventually, kicking myself.

Mel said...

Very well said. I don't know what else to add, except that I was nodding in agreement throughout the whole read.

Mel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christina said...

Heh, I wish I could give that woman my child for awhile. Then maybe she'd change her judgemental views.

The crying child in the stroller would have been my child. But the woman wouldn't have noticed the baby sling underneath. We practiced attachement parenting, and she still cried all the freaking time. That's just who she is - strong-willing and stubborn.

It's thanks to my daughter that I view situations like you do - I first side with the parent, and have even been known to ask if I could help in distracting the child in someway. I've endured people watching me try to deal with my cranky toddler as she throws herself on the floor in the middle of Wal-Mart, so I could never judge another parent dealing with a temper tantrum (as long as they weren't doing something stupid, like hitting the kid or screaming obscenities at the kid).

Great post!

Nancy said...

What a lovely post. And I see that whereas the mom in your first paragraph was teaching her child to condemn others, your mother taught you how to be loving and tolerant. Were that everyone had parents that could teach those lessons.

RLGelber said...

Awesome post!

Joker The Lurcher said...

i so relate to the thing about shops! my son is autistic and has ADHD and one memorable occasion the checkout woman said "you should have that child on ritalin". i was so stunned i didn't do anything. when i got home i thought of the appropriate response (too late as always) - "i didn't know child psychiatrists were so badly paid they had to have a second job on the checkouts". you could write a book of this sort of thing from the experiences of my friends who have autistic kids. thank you for this post.