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Parenting in Public

The Kindness of Strangers


Friday, November 9, 2012

It’s very troubling the way mothers are often treated in our otherwise very family-friendly town. Normally, we don’t have the time (because we are busy being good mothers) or are too shocked to address the fact that a total stranger is glaring our way or has approached us to scold us for any of a range of offenses including: not having a hat or socks on our baby, letting our energetic or upset child get out of arm’s reach, not controlling our child from grabbing a piece of fruit at a fruit stand when you are busy with a sibling, or refusing to placate a child having a tantrum. I typically avoid conflict with such people when I have encountered them, but last week a woman I will call Jane Donogood went too far.

My 4 1/2-half-year-old daughter and I went to Paseo Nuevo to buy a birthday gift. While in the midst of strong parenting at Baby Gap (not giving in to my daughter wanting me to buy her two things) a tantrum ensued. (For the record, it was early in the morning, this was our first store, and she was not hungry or tired.) Some parents would give in – anything to prevent a tantrum in public. I calmly suggested we go outside, and when it was clear we would not be able to work things out I calmly said, “Let’s go,” and started walking.

Lacy Selby

One hundred percent of the time, my very smart, strong-willed daughter follows and the tantrum is defused. (I happen to know that because I gave birth to her and have been with her almost every minute of every day for over four years.) I walked into the store next door waiting for her to catch up, and from out of nowhere, an older woman marches in and asks, “Are you this girl’s mother?” To which I replied, “Yes.” I was expecting concern and was about to explain that my very passionate daughter was having a tantrum and was not crying and looking distressed for any other reason and that rather than physically trying to remove her against her will I know that “walking away” will be the most effective method for us, but before I had a chance to say another word she said, “I am a court-mandated reporter. I am not within my jurisdiction, but if I were, I would report you.” Then she did an about face toward the door.

She may as well have slapped me in the face, hard. I asked her why it is that people like her so often criticize moms who are doing their best. I told her emphatically “I am a good mother.” Her response was an emphatic “You are not doing a good job.” (She came to this conclusion in the time span of one minute.) I told her, “We need to work together as a community.” You might wonder why I even responded to her initially. I did so because it was the most horrible thing anyone has ever said to me, and it was a very serious accusation.

After having spoken with and observed so many people who have been treated like this, I have decided rather than ignoring the behavior or just being polite we should speak up. I regret not asking what was within her “jurisdiction” and for her name so I could have reported her. Assuming this woman is indeed a court-mandated reporter, she is required to report any suspicion of child abuse. It is not her responsibility to harass people.

Mothers are often sleep-deprived, tired, feeling isolated, having a hard day, or just struggling a little with one of the many challenges of motherhood, like tantrums. Some may also be struggling with depression. What could happen when someone in a more vulnerable state lets someone define her self-worth? This isn’t good for children.

In trying to understand the mentality behind the uninformed, harsh, snap judgments of passersby, I wonder if these people have ever had their own children – or if people who haven’t had small children for 50 or even five years have forgotten how challenging it can be, or if people who have never had strong-willed or rambunctious children just don’t have the experience to relate. Child abuse is a sad and serious problem, and thank goodness there are many trained people in Santa Barbara who really do care, are observant, and report actual abuse when it has been seen or suspected. And thank goodness for the agencies committed to this cause. I suggest all the truly concerned citizens of our community get involved with one of these organizations and redirect their energy toward children and families in need.

It really does take a village to raise children. Think what we could accomplish in our society if more people could support a mother who looks like she might need a helping hand. Helping might take the form of just taking a breath, watching for a few more seconds, and reserving immediate judgment. Or maybe it’s informing them of something about which they may be unaware.

To all the loving mothers in Santa Barbara, you are doing an exceptional job! Don’t ever let others try to make you think otherwise, especially people who don’t know you or have any awareness of the healthy, happy life you have devoted yourself to creating with your family. We all have our own parenting styles and disciplinary techniques, which, assuming they are not abusive, must be respected. It is our right as parents to raise our children the way we think is best for them.

And, in all fairness to the majority of you who do smile at us, tell us our kids are precious, share stories about when your kids were little, pick something up we have dropped or just plain cut us some slack if you happen to look our way in a moment when our super-parent shield may have been temporarily lowered: Thank you! Most of us would not say we are perfect in the challenging and dynamic field of child-raising, but we would all agree we strive to be. You have no idea what a difference a little respect and compassion can make in the day and life of a mother, child, and family.

Lacy Selby lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and children.

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