On May 30th a reader writes:
So, I was thinking about your post yesterday after a little accident on the beach yesterday. [My friend] G. and I make a great team with her kids. I know her kids and I know how she parents, and since we’re together all the time she gives me the right to draw boundaries and set consequences if need be for her girls. It works for us. Her kids are tough and if one hits the other and the other punches back, she just sits back and waits for them to work it out. I’ve learned to be comfortable with that.
So, another woman comes down to the beach with her two boys. They live there, so I’m sure they are much more familiar with the terrain. She seemed largely unconcerned that her one year old was tottering around near the quarry sans life jacket. Okay. Then her oldest sits down on the swing and the littlest toddles over and gets a little too close and bam! The bar on the bottom of the swing beans him on the head and he goes tumbling several feet. I jump up because the mom is nowhere to be seen and then the whole swing collapses and falls backward, most notably knocking the wind out of the oldest. I run over and no one’s crying, everyone seems fine and the mom saunters over and asks if everyone’s okay. I tell her that the youngest got hit on the head and went tumbling and she asks if everyone is okay and then walks away, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I do likewise. Because – it’s not my deal. I feel like it was okay for me to run to the rescue, should someone have been bleeding or unconscious, but since she seems unconcerned, I have to do the same. But I felt weird about it.
Anyway, just wondered what you thought about it in light of what you wrote.
A story like this is rather hard to get a read on because I wasn’t there. First off, of course it was okay for you to run to the little one’s rescue. Had they been hysterical and hurt, you could have helped (although most young children usually want their mommies/daddies/carers when they are hurt and frightened). When I was a child I liked knowing grownups noticed when one of us had trouble, and I was comforted when they stepped in to assist whether I took them up on it or not.
As for the mother and your thoughts on her, I will say many parents I observe run the gamut of heavily managing injuries/crying to barely reacting. If I were being judged from outside by someone who did not know me I would likely often look like more of the “barely reacting” type. Not so much my kids don’t seek me out, though: they come to me for a hug and wipe their tears on my clothes and move on, and I always give them exactly how much love they need (How do I know? While I am still there, present, holding them, they release me and move on.)
Funnily enough when the kids have a huge throwdown (like what people call “a tantrum”) I am also usually pretty calm through that too. Last night we had a dinner guest (childfree) and I could tell she was watching me like a hawk to see how I’d handle my daughter’s “drama”. But the thing is, it is the very part of me that “allows” drama that also enables my children to move through it quickly and for the most part remain quite even-keeled through many stressors (as far as I can tell). My daughter had a few upsets at the beginning of the dinner and then she was calm and happy throughout the evening beyond 11 o’clock when our guest left. Not that I think anyone has the right to judge my parenting and my child based on her “convenience” for guests; my point is that I did not need to lecture my daughter about her “bad behavior” (or whatever) for her to move on to “better behavior” – but I often feel a social pressure to do so.
Back to the beach: those kids sounded pretty young and when I had young babies I tended to react more than I do now. It isn’t just because I love(d) them, it’s because I felt expected to (or else be judged a “bad mother”). I now believe I did not need to react and rescue and moderate as much as I did. But then, I was new to the whole bit too. Now instead of social mores I have my intense knowledge of my own children. A parent in tune with their kids recognizes relatively quickly when they really do need cuddling, a bandaid, some attention, etc. and when they don’t.
Was that mother in tune with her kids? I can’t tell because I wasn’t there, but you might be able to make a reasonable guess if you think back on what happened. I do see people here where I live who seem almost callous to their children. But often these people have a look like things are rough, their lives are rough, or at least they’re having some sort of terrible clusterfuck of a day. A sort of drawn look not to mention their clothing and their cars (or lack thereof) or their tone of voice or what they’re talking about or the look in their eyes – it reminds me I have things more fortunate than many others. I am not saying everyone who’s an ass-hat to their kids has some tragic story as to why. But I’m far less likely to jump to any conclusions than I used to be.
Another possibility is the mother felt shamed for not being there or shamed/angry for having another person “infringe” on her territory (I hasten to add again, you did nothing wrong) and she might have responded from a hardened place. I just don’t know but you might have a sense.
And finally, the life jacket thing. Well this is not only cultural but varies within families and if we needed to keep our kids safe 24/7 we, well, we wouldn’t HAVE kids. Anecdotally I am very, VERY paranoid with my children around water – and they both can swim. Since they were babies I’ve worried about drowning; even when I had them strapped to my body and was crossing a safe bridge I’d have terrible fantasies about them plunging in. At a quarry I’d probably have crazy-eye with worry over my baby.
And finally, off-topic a bit, anytime I hear adults judging one another about parenting I think of this video:
The truth is parenting is a hard job and most people are doing the best we can. It is wonderful you help your friend out and you are one of those valued friends who shares family life with us. I have several of those childfree (or childless, depending on your preference) friends and they are very treasured by myself, my husband, and my children. G. is lucky to have you.