Last year, a friend of mine left her son in the car and ran into a store for ten minutes. It was a bad call, one she regrets, and one that could have cost her both her freedom and her child when a bystander filmed the whole thing and then called the police.
I’m all for people showing concern for children, and I admit when I heard my friend left the child in the car I thought, “Wow, I would never do that.” But I also empathized with her. She’s a good mom. We all make split-second decisions out of necessity, and sometimes they’re not the best ones.
I believe the witness wanted to help the child, but putting him at risk of losing his mom is not the way to go. In such a situation, why do we resist saying something directly to the parent? In a stressful moment, we can all make bad decisions. Having a stranger prevent you from doing so — in this case, reminding a mom that she should’t leave her son in the car alone — seems like more of a community service than filming the incident and waiting for backup.
But it’s also more difficult. In a blog post about whether it’s ever okay to call the police on another parent, the writer describes seeing a child left alone in a high chair for four minutes while the mother took her older children to the bathroom. She wonders if it is child abuse and writes: “Should I have said something to the parent? Probably, but it would have created a situation that would have embarrassed both of us and possibly angered at least one parent.”
This feels like a cop out, pardon the pun. It troubles me that calling the police is up for debate, but merely suggesting to a parent who may be overwhelmed that there may be a safer way to handle a situation is completely unthinkable. Why not just offer to sit with the child until his or her parent returns?
It’s possible that my perspective on this is shaped by the fact that I live in the Netherlands, where people have no trouble offering unsolicited advice or assistance. I’ve never been a parent in the States, but from what I understand, this is a real cultural difference. In a post about parenting in the United States, a Dutch mother writes that when she was heavily pregnant with her second child, her 2-year old would sometimes run ahead of her down the street. “Sometimes I’d yell at people walking towards us to please stop my child. They wanted to help, but I got the impression they were all too scared to actually just grab and stop her. In the Netherlands, people would have gotten involved.”
I’ve had strangers here offer unsolicited (and rather authoritative) instructions on the best way to bring a stroller up an escalator (the elevator was broken), how to change a baby in a public restroom when there’s no changing table, or on how to position a sun umbrella on the buggy when it’s just a little bit windy and my baby won’t stop crying.
Sure, I could see this as intrusive, but instead I’m grateful to live in a community that is not only interested in the well-being of others’ children but in offering assistance when they see me trying to overcome the hurdles of the day.
Rather than turn away and indulge in an internal dialogue of self-congratulatory judgment, these strangers got involved: a hurried businessman stopped to help me get the stroller up the escalator, a waitress took time to help me maneuver changing a baby without being able to lay him down, a grandmother put down her shopping to adjust my umbrella.
All of these interactions were friendly. I never felt judged or embarrassed — I was grateful.
I don’t want to over-idealize, there’s still judgement here. We’ve all judged other parents, myself included. I do it to reassure myself that I’m doing a good job, that there are things I will never, ever do. But now that I’ve been parenting for four years, I’m more realistic. This morning, for example, upon realizing I had forgotten to brush my son’s teeth, I slipped him a Tic Tac and left him at school. We don’t always get it right, even when we know better. So now when I judge, I’m aware that all I’m really saying is there is a line I haven’t crossed — yet.
“I would never give my two-year old chocolate milk,” I used to say, and I stuck to it with my first child, but not my second or third. And I’ve decided that it’s fine. Because even though I draw lines, I — like most of us — tend to draw them behind myself.
We share our opinions wildly online, ostensibly as a community. There are so many different viewpoints out there about anything to do with parenting, from the choice to have a baby, to the method of conception, to how and where we give birth, whether we bottle or breastfeed, whether we pursue a career or dedicate our lives to the job of motherhood.
It purports to be dialogue, but too much certainty that a personal choice is the best and only approach breeds defensiveness and stifles conversation and actual engagement. Consider the countless articles that tell us what never to say to a fill–in–the–blank woman. How about writing about what we should say to each other?
I’m not condoning bad parenting choices. I am advocating for something you could call compassionate intervention — or more simply, helping each other. At the very least, giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s get back to the thing I’d never do, the line I drew so confidently in the sand. Two weeks ago, while my husband was traveling and I was in the supermarket parking lot having just strapped three unhappy toddlers under 4 into the car, I realized I still had to run the cart back inside. It took under a minute. When I got back to my car, an older woman was standing beside it, waving at my children.
“You’ve got your hands full,” she said, smiling. “I was going to offer to take that in for you, but you went so fast you didn’t hear me.”
She had witnessed a mom making a quick decision, and rather than considering prosecution or judgment, she offered to give a hand. Nobody was embarrassed, uncomfortable, defensive, or arrested. She stood with my children, she empathized with my situation. She was helpful.
Although there are unfit, abusive parents out there, most of us want to succeed at this, and are doing the best that we can. But we get tired, we get frustrated, we feel isolated and a little desperate sometimes. We all do. So let’s have more empathy and try to help rather than punish parents we see in their less-than-perfect moments. Most people will thank you for it.
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