Monday, April 27, 2009

Mirror, mirror

Over the weekend, the boys and I witnessed a scene at Old Navy that has been disturbing me ever since. We were in the checkout lane paying for our stuff, and at the checkout next to us were a woman, her husband (I assume) and three young girls. Here was the gist of their conversation:

Girl: "Mom?"
Mom: "Shut up, okay?!"
Girl: "But I wanted to ask you something about Mother's Day-"
Mom: "You know what I want for Mother's Day? Three kids who shut the hell up."
Girl: "But-"
Mom: "I said shut your mouth! Just shut up, okay?!" [Flicks the girl in the head; everyone is casting uncomfortable looks in their direction now; Kevin and Joey are staring gape-mouthed.]
Mom [noticing that people are looking but pretending she doesn't care]: "And you know what I want to know? When did 'shut up' become a bad word? It's not a bad word. It depends on the context." [And I'm standing there thinking, "umm, and what's the proper, non-offensive context for 'shut up'?]

It was very uncomfortable to witness. Even Kevin said afterwards (and I thought this was very astute), "It seemed like she probably always talks to her kids that way. Even her kids didn't act like it was anything unusual."

Part of me wanted to tell her to keep her vileness to herself, and part of me was thinking "I'm glad I'm not that kind of mom . . . Am I? No, of course not. I mean, I've never flicked my kid in the head. But I do yell at them a lot . . . But I certainly don't belittle them, and I'm dead-set against saying 'shut-up' . . ."

Okay, far be it from me to judge (although of course I was/am judging). I'm no saint of a parent, and I do my share of yelling at my kids and saying things that I feel ashamed of later. I realized, too, that nobody who witnessed that scene has any idea what made that mom so bitter and nasty. Who knows what stresses she's dealing with (her husband was in a wheelchair, which might or might not be a factor).

Still, I just felt sad, really sad, for the three little girls. (And I totally didn't appreciate my kids being exposed to an adult so freely saying "shut-up" all over the place and then insisting that there's nothing wrong with saying "shut-up" when Michael and I have made it very clear to our kids that "shut-up" is, in fact, a bad word and unacceptable.) Because the bottom line is: no matter what kind of stress or rotten deal we're dealt as a parent, it's our job - our sacred responsibility - to do our best to ensure the happiness and emotional well-being of our kids. One day, when they are adults, it will be up to them to make their own happiness, but right now, when they are mere children, it's all on our shoulders - as it should be.

I realize I sound all pious and self-righteous, and I don't mean to. This is really kind of a reminder to myself. It's an interesting exercise to wonder how it would feel if some of my less-than-stellar parenting moments were witnessed by a crowd of people in Old Navy. Kind of makes me want to be a kinder, gentler mom. Imagining that you're being observed, while a little creepy, can certainly be a great motivator to behave better.

I tried to picture that woman holding her little girl as a newborn, gazing into her little face for the first time, and I wondered if she ever fathomed back then that one day she would be flicking that little girl in the head - in public! - and sniping at her to "shut the hell up." She probably didn't fathom that. None of us do.

Some day, our kids will be parents themselves, and more often than not, they will repeat and mimic a lot of the behavior their own parents exhibited, good and bad. Sometimes when I imagine my kids all grown up and snapping at their own kids impatiently - because that's what they learned from me - well, I just know I'm not doing the best job I could be doing.

So instead of expending a lot of energy judging that woman, in the end it's made me feel a little more motivated to behave better as a parent myself. The question that needs to be addressed every day is: "Am I building them up, or tearing them down?"


Liz said...

This has been a challenge for me lately, too. I blogged about it a week or so ago and have recommitted myself to set a more positive tone in my household. I got back on track when I discovered a Dad blog where he really put into words my own struggles.

I get so sad when I see those public humiliation moments. Does the parent not realize how she is behaving? Is she just fraught with tension and it's reached the breaking point? Who knows... but I like your spin. That it isn't about her- it's about finding that reminder for you. And me, through you!

My reward for this past week of focusing on positive interactions and little to no yelling? More smiles and "I love you's" and giggles!

Jen said...

Oh, that's so sad. Those girls. This has made me cry, because Eli and I have had a very trying day, and while I never tell him to shut up or flick him or any of that, and I would never dream of belittling him in public, sometimes I do feel like I'm tearing him down, just like you said. I've got to do better.

Wendy P said...

Lisa, thank you so much for the reminder. It's easy to get caught up in the trying to get things done and forget that the really important thing is the small moments of validation.

heather said...

Such a good reminder. It breaks my heart for those little girls that just wanted their mom's attention for one minute. But I know I have my moments and a lot of them do happen out in public because that seems to be where I have the least amount of control with my kids and am at my wit's end. I used to hate seeing babies crying in their carseats/stollers,etc out in public and not any attempt to soothe the baby from the mother. Then I had Griffin...he had terrible colic and screamed non stop no matter what I did. I embarrassedly pushed him around the grocery store with him screaming the entire time while he was in his carseat. Everyone looked at me and it made me realize what I had done to those other parents. Sometimes we are just doing the best we can. But then other times we aren't even trying. Thanks for the reminder. There are so many things I do as a mother that I do NOT want passed on to my children for them to incorporate into their parenting styles.

Tricia said...

Very wise words and a good reminder. Thank you.

Karly said...

I love this. Thank you.

Lovin Mama said...

These things are always uncomfortable to watch. But, you're right, this is a good reminder to check ourselves.

There seem to be some people that think it is acceptable to treat children this way. My 4th grader's teacher told her daughter (also in 4th grade) to shut-up in front of both classrooms. nice, huh.