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Friday, March 6, 2015

Our culture of parenting: the fine line between support and meddling,independence and negligence

The other day, I picked the boys up from school and headed to the unholy land of Target, the one place that usually has everything on my list. I want to buy local, I really do. But I also want to pay the mortgage and spend less than 6 hours running basic errands. So Target it is. We have Atticus on what we call the "star system": good behavior earns him stars, while rotten behavior means we take stars away. Once he's built up 5 stars, he gets to pick out a new toy (read: Legos. It's always new Legos). This particular afternoon the boys were in especially good spirits for obvious reasons, and the sun was warm and shining for the first time in weeks. We traversed the aisles jovially, making small talk and singing songs with one another in our quiet voices so as not to annoy the many 20-something hipsters that frequent this particular central-Houston Target, and we were having a very low-key and low-drama excursion.

While we're in line, I notice a woman about my age with a toddler in the front of her cart (with one of those shopping cart covers designed to keep the germs away from precious Johnny's little hands), happily munching on organic, non-GMO mountain-air-popped corn and dressed in what I can only assume cost hundreds from the local baby boutique. If you've got it, flaunt it. No criticism here. But just as I'm realizing how put-together this darling pair appears compared to my dishelved brood, Quinn has decided to lick the safety bar on the shopping cart (which is decidedly NOT covered in an adorable Pinterest-worthy cart cover) while Atticus sings "Everything is Awesome" using fart noises instead of words.

I realize how we must look to outsiders: I am enormously pregnant, carting two small and noisy children, one of whom has special needs, around a relatively crowded store with no makeup on while the boys are still wearing half their lunch on their clothes. I should be more frazzled than I am, to be honest. Most days I would be, but as I mentioned before, we were having a good afternoon and all was right with the world. So when the well-dressed mom raced over to me in the parking lot, I was a bit taken aback.

Apparently, Atticus was standing up in the back of the shopping cart while I was strapping Quinn into his car seat and this mom was dreadfully worried for his safety. Keep in mind, Atticus is almost 5 years old and has no intention of swan-diving onto the asphalt, nor did his standing incite the level of maniacal fear this woman was exhibiting as she raced across the parking lot to "save him." And my first instinct was to be terribly insulted by this parenting interception. I felt like she was trying to say, "I'll keep an eye on your kid since you clearly can't." As soon as she explained her sudden presence, she told me that parenting is so hard and that my kids are adorable and she just wants to make sure they stay that way. And with a "you're doing a great job, mom," she walked away, leaving me confused and teetering between insult and gratitude.

I think this woman was sincerely trying to help, but I couldn't help but feel like my parenting was being criticized and her comments were condescending. Was I being too sensitive? Proabably. The reality is that most days I would have been immensely grateful for her intervention and her kind words, but today I was pleased with how well I was handling it all and her very presence made me feel like I must look less together than I felt.

I spent most of the evening rethinking the entire experience...was I that frazzled working mom always covered in food-stuff and trying to keep myself from driving the whole damn thing of a cliff at any minute? I know I'm not, but is this how the world perceives me? And if they do, how much should it really matter? I was pondering this and more of life's little quandaries when I came across the recent Washington Post article, "Would you call 911 on another parent?" If you're a parent and you haven't read this yet, you should. For those of you too lazy to click the enclosed link (*eye roll* You're no better than my high school students), I'll summarize it for you. Briefly. Because you deserve no better:

As the title implies, many parents are getting flack from other parents for their parenting. So much so, that authorities are being called to respond to what these meddling citizens see as child negligence. These are the instances you've likely read about in the news: the mom who let her 9-year-old play on a playground while she worked at a nearby McDonald's because she couldn't afford childcare, or the 10- and 6-year-old siblings who are allowed to walk home from school on their own (which I did, by the way, for most of elementary school). These so-called negligent parents are having to defend their choices because other parents felt like they knew better and the cops should be called. But how helpful is that? Wouldn't it be more helpful for these concerned citizens to offer to keep an eye on these kids instead of report them to authorities? Shouldn't we parents do a better job of supporting each other? We all know how hard it can be sometimes. And if a mother can't afford childcare for her 3rd grader because she's trying to support a family on minimum wage, how is a battle with CPS going to make her any better in the eyes of those most critical? It's a waste of resources, a waste of energy, and a waste of the time this mom should be spending with her family.

After reading this article, it hit me why I couldn't figure out how to feel about my encounter with posh parking-lot mom: I was irritated by her overprotective nature, but simultaneously pleased that she was willing to step in to help and support instead of wrinkling her nose at my "poor" choices. She was trying to build a community of parents who look out for one another and raise each other up. She genuinely wanted to prevent Atticus from loss of life and limb, even if she did silently judge me for my lax parenting skills, and went so far as to tell me that my kids were darling. If anyone here is the jerk, it's me for being offended.

But can we talk about helicopter parenting for a second? Just so you can see where I'm coming from...I teach anywhere from 140-165 high school sophomores every year. Of those kids, most of them are well-adjusted and able to handle the rigors of an advanced curriculum. But there are always a handful who repeatedly fail to complete their assignments or study for their quizzes, or are chronically absent due to a tickle in their throat. And while these kids make up a small percentage of my students overall, their parents make up 100% of those who are a pain in my ass. These are the parents who email me daily, sometimes multiple times a day, to ask for clarification on instructions that their child never bothered to listen to or write down, to beg for an extension on a paper they've had weeks to write, or to ask me for extra credit because their little angel is too embarrassed to ask me himself. These are also likely the parents who wouldn't let their teenager walk three blocks home from school on his own, let alone when he was 10 years old. These might very well be the parents who are judging (or even calling the cops on) the rest of us who are trying to muddle through while also giving our kids the independence they need to handle their own problems, nurse their own wounds, and get back up and try again when mistakes are made. And I'll admit, it's a delicate and difficult balance. I don't ever want my children to get hurt, but that might be the only way Quinn will ever learn to stop pilfering cans of soup from the pantry and dropping them on his toes. Because telling him "no" just isn't working well enough.