If You Don't Have Kids, You Just Can't Know
Recently, I've read a few articles about moms dealing with rambunctious and tantrumming kids in public and getting not-so-kind reactions from non-parents in response (this one and this one, specifically). The articles are good reading, but the comments? Whoa. Almost 70 comments on the first one and over 11,000 comments on the second one. Apparently everyone has an opinion about how kids should act and how parents should react in public.
Don't worry though. This post isn't about how kids should act or how parents should respond.
I've been thinking since reading the above-linked posts about some of the hostile comments, both from parents and non-parents alike. There were lots of ugly ones ranging from some variation of: 1. "Spank them!" to 2. "Don't bring your kids in public. Ever. And by they way, definitely don't take them on an airplane until they're at least five, you inconsiderate jerks with kids!" to 3. "If your kid has a fit and gets loud in public, take them home right away. Who cares if you have a cart full of groceries you've just spent an hour accumulating and no food in your house? If you don't take them out of the store immediately when they're loud, you are a bad parent," and everything in between.
Another general theme of the comments that stuck with me was this: "Just because someone doesn't have children doesn't mean they don't know about children and how to deal with them."
I agree with this statement. I know lots of people who don't have children but are really great with kids. I was a psychologist, so I know plenty of people with extensive knowledge about behavioral principles, discipline, and child development who don't happen to have children of their own. There are lots of great teachers and other people who work with kids and do a great job of it even though they don't have kids.
But that's not quite what this post is about either.
The comments that stayed with me went beyond simply stating that people who don't have kids can be knowledgeable about them. They added assertions that people without children know what it's like to deal with a difficult child, have better ideas how to handle them, and should not have to "tolerate" bad behavior from others' children/"brats." There was plenty of resentment that parents are overly "permissive" or "spoiling" their kids when they "let" them act up in public. Some of the comments were quite hateful (i.e. "because YOU decided to breed, does not mean the rest of us should have to suffer your obnoxious children"). One even compared children to chimpanzees!
For the purposes of this post, I'm going to gloss over the fact that there certainly are some parents out there who do not correct the misbehavior of their children and can be frustrating both to people with kids and without.
Because that's not what this post is about either.
I'll get to my point (finally).
My gut reaction to the ugly comments about non-parents knowing about children and what it takes to discipline them was this:
Yes, absolutely, non-parents can be very knowledgeable about children.
BUT, no matter how much you know about human development, reinforcement contingencies, and/or various strategies of disciplining kids, you cannot know what it is like to be a mom in the moment your child is acting out in public until you are a mom in that moment.
I have certainly had to learn myself that having all kinds of knowledge about kids/development/psychology didn't qualify me to judge parents in the trenches or even to be a mom myself. Knowing about something is very different from living it in the most highly invested way possible.
Unless you are a parent, you can't know how humiliating it can be to have your child throwing a totally unforeseen fit in public.
You can't know how frustrating (or panic inducing) it is when sometimes in the heat of the moment your mind goes blank and you can't think what to do to calm your child down, or when you know that all the things that are coming to mind are not the most effective strategies.
You can't know what it's like to look back on a teachable moment and realize that you totally screwed it up.
You can't know the thoughts, fears, and insecurities that run through a mom's mind when her child is acting inappropriately.
You can't know what it feels like to fear that your kid is going to grow up to be a jerk if you don't handle this particular situation perfectly. Every. time. (Even though you know this is not realistic, the fear is still there, deep down).
It's more than just dealing with a kid throwing a fit or otherwise acting in an undesirable way. It's dealing with a kid doing these things who is also your flesh and blood and one of the most important beings in your universe, and, oh yeah, it's all up to you to make sure this child grows up to be a productive and responsible adult. No pressure.
(Please note, this is in no way intended to insult or otherwise devalue people who don't have kids. I love my non-parent friends, who are awesome with my kids, BTW.)
I'll use a small example from this past weekend to illustrate a little bit what it can be like inside a parent's head (at least in mine) when a kid is acting not so nicely in a public place. My kids generally don't have tantrums in public. I can only remember this happening once, when Lass didn't want to put her coat on right-side-up when we were leaving the grocery store last winter. But they definitely do sometimes act in ways that I don't love when we are in a public place.
We went to a pumpkin patch last Friday. It was sunny and hot. We were all tired from a long trip and lack of sleep the night before.
We went out to the patch. Lass picked her pumpkin pretty quickly.
Baby Sis even picked a pumpkin with no problem.
Miss on the other hand, was a bit more, um, picky. Not only did she reject all of the pumpkins that were enthusiastically pointed out to her, she pouted and whined about not finding one like her sister's. She couldn't find one just the right color. Or size. Or shape.
We were wandering around (and around) the pumpkin patch with my Mom and two of my friends from graduate school. Did I mention it was hot?
I was sweaty and tired and uncomfortable.
I was feeling guilty that my friends and mom were roasting in the heat.
I admit, I felt mortified when Miss repeatedly dropped pumpkins on the ground and said petulantly, "That's ugly" or "I hate it," or stood and pouted without even looking for a pumpkin, because she wanted the one Lass had chosen.
She didn't actually have a fit, but clearly she wasn't acting very nicely either.
I had a small tug of war in my head that went something like this, "I love that she is so particular about things! She's not going to settle for something that isn't up to her standards and that's good!" vs. "She is acting. like. a. brat! She's never going to pick a pumpkin. And she's just being difficult about it."
So as I repeatedly went through the cycle of rising frustration and then talking myself off the ledge, my behavior toward her alternated between, "How about this one Honey? This one has a cool color. Let's keep looking. We'll find one that's just right" and "Don't just stand there and pout! If you're not even going to look for a pumpkin, I'll just find one for you."
Of course, she did eventually find the. perfect. pumpkin. And she was thrilled with it.
And I was left looking back at my internal dialog and external reactions to her and feeling a bit embarrassed that I was at times impatient and kind of jerky towards her while she was trying to find her pumpkin, knowing that she was tired and hot just like I was. Because although she was acting in a way I didn't like, and it was seemingly taking forever for her to find a dang pumpkin, my impatience and frustration with her was not the response that was helping the situation. And in that moment, I really struggled to produce the response that would.
And although I don't really believe that my Mom and my friends were judging me because of her behavior, I still had this teeny tiny little nagging feeling that they would think I was letting my kid act like a brat or that I don't teach her manners or something else like that. And then I had a teeny tiny little nagging feeling that they would think, "Geez, she's kind of a Jerk-Mom. The poor kid's just trying to find a pumpkin."
As a psychologist, I would call these "automatic (irrational) thoughts." As a mom I have to combat these all. the. time.
I can just imagine if there had been strangers about glaring at me or my daughter or making nasty comments about her behavior or my reaction to it.
My kids are not brats, in spite of how they may sometimes behave, both in private and public. They are sweet, loving, delightful little girls. Most kids are delightful most of the time. A glimpse of a child acting "bratty" doesn't define that child or that child's parents.
There are lots of ways parents can react when their kids are unpleasant in public. And what is going on inside a parent's head may or may not reflect what she is actually doing. I don't think it really ever helps anyone when people make ugly comments or otherwise show obvious disdain in response to a child's behavior or a parent's response, whether those people have kids themselves or not.
My point is that you never know what a mom is thinking when her kid is acting not-so-nicely in public.
She might be embarrassed. She might be scared. She might be angry. She might be all of those and more, or none of them.
If you don't have kids (or even if you do), please don't assume that knowledge about children gives you an understanding of what a mom is going through when trying to manage her child's behavior or that you could do it better yourself.
You just can't know what it's like until you're a parent in that moment.
And though I don't expect people without children, or anyone really, to give me some sort of special treatment when one of my kids acts less than perfectly in a public place, it sure is amazing when someone unexpectedly offers help. Like the nice woman who got a high chair for me when we stopped at Wendy's during our drive down last week and in response to my "Thank you so much," said, "I hope someday someone will help me out too when I have kids." It's such a boost when someone offers kind words of support, like my friend's sister who said to me while my kids were running and playing in the rain, "You're a good mom."
Our day at the pumpkin patch turned out just fine.
My girls had a great time overall, and so did I.
Even in the moments when I'm not doing such a bang up job of mothering my kids, I'm doing the best I can and am always trying to improve.
Most parents are, and that's what matters.