Have you done things to discipline your child that you were thankful weren't seen by those who don't know you very well, or done things because you were stressed and at a loss for how best to respond? Well, an article in this month's Baltimore's Child called In the Public Eye by Molly Brown Koch discusses parent misbehavior in public and asks the question, should you interfere? I read it while waiting for my daughter in swim class. It handles those instances when you witness something in public between parent and child and how you perceive what you are witnessing, the assumptions you make and how to handle it.
But back to the first question, how many of you can honestly say you've lost it with your kids and weren't proud of your actions or that you followed an unconventional path to teaching your child better behavior?
At about 1 1/2 years of age, my daughter used to pull my hair when I held her, a very common thing that babies do. Despite this, I opted not to go with a short hair cut. I wanted to keep my long hair. One evening I was over my mom's and getting ready to leave. I had my daughter in my arms. She grabbed handfuls of my hair in both of her tiny fists and began pulling outward on both sides of my head, giggling all the while. I was stuck. I couldn't remove both of her hands from my hair without dropping her and I couldn't put her down without more pain. I was tired of this little game of hers and I had but one option left. I took one of my hands from around her and grabbed a hunk of her hair in the back of her head and began to pull. Her expression immediately changed to surprise and discomfort. I decided not to let go until she let go and she did, very quickly. That was a monumental moment for both of us. She finally understood what I was feeling and I became acquainted with a darker side of me. Her habit of hair pulling was extinguished from that day forward. I wasn't sure I had handled myself well, but it did work. I was glad my mom had been the only one there. She knows how much I love my daughter and understood my ongoing frustration with this problem.
Now imagine someone you don't know smacking a child in the grocery store, or verbally abusing and making a scene. What do you typically do? What should you do? Are you really getting the big picture or the whole story of this child's life? Or are you judging someone else's skills unfairly in a stressful moment?
Turns out the woman next to me was trying to read over my shoulder and she began to tell me a story. She was out shopping with her husband and kids and as they walked to their car in the parking lot, she witnessed another mom "herding", as she put it, her two kids into the back lift gate of her SUV. She herself had recently been rear ended and was concerned for the safety of the children. She said to this stranger, " You know, they are not dogs. What will happen if you get into an accident?" The woman angrily told her to " mind your own damn business!" and that ended the interaction. Her husband was embarrassed and asked her why she couldn't just mind her own business as well.
I understood this woman's concern, after having been rear ended herself, but I thought to myself,
" Yeah, that worked well, didn't it?" Comparing a woman's ability to parent her kids to how she might treat dogs is not going to endear her to you and your concerns will fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, did she know for certain that those kids were going to ride unrestrained in the back of that vehicle? My daughter has scrambled into the back of my van once or twice because she thinks it is fun to climb over the seats to her booster seat. Might someone have misinterpreted seeing that?
I have sometimes felt sympathy for those who have ended with legal troubles and an overreaction to something they did in a stressful moment or something that was misinterpreted by others. I have often thought that people judge too easily and make assumptions lightly. Of course if someone is wailing on a child and the child is in clear physical danger, the police should be called. In less obvious circumstances or when a parent is at his/her wits end dealing with a misbehaving child in public and responds less appropriately than they should, what can you do?
The article introduced me to something called the Wakanheza Project which has been established in Minnesota and encourages people to respond to situations of stress and anger in a compassionate helpful way. Wakenheza is a Dakota word for child or more literally "sacred being". There are three steps to this approach:
1) Assess yourself- this is the time to put aside judgements and tap into a time when you were so stressed out you may have acted inappropriately and realize it can happen to the best of us.
2) Assess the situation- are you witnessing the breaking point of a parent after a long work day who is then dealing with a child removing everything from the shelves in the grocery store? Or someone who may have just experienced a loss and has nothing left to deal appropriately with the situation at hand? We can never fully realize the burdens that others carry. Think of one positive action you can employ to diffuse the stress of the situation. You can smile at the person, pick up a dropped item, compliment the angry parent's sweater, hairstyle, etc., offer to hold a door or put their shopping cart back.
3) Act in the Moment- After carefully considering what you can do to help, employ that action. Never offer advice or make judgemental statements. Just do something to diffuse the stress and distract from the situation. Often this is just what is needed to cause self awareness in the situation and help someone rise above their reaction. Imagine how silly you would feel if someone complimented your shoes in the middle of you yelling at your child in public. Suddenly you are aware of how out of control you must have seemed and that the thing you were angry about really isn't that important after all.
It may take a village to raise our children, but we don't always need to police each other so much as to offer support and understanding.