Tattling on bad parents: Also bad parenting?

John_Bourne._Woman_and_ChildI have advocated for a long time that when it comes to parenting it takes a village. In big ways and especially in small ways.

I will always think fondly (and a little enviously) of visits to my inlaws, in which aunts weren’t afraid to discipline nieces, or carry their squirmy, dirty bodies over their shoulders to the bathtub, whether it was her own child or not. Such are the benefits of a bigger family.

I’d like to believe that this notion extends to the community as well, although, let’s say not at bath time. However if my kids are knocking over some little kid in the playground en route to the slide, I want to know about it. If my baby were having a crying spell in the elevator or on an airplane, how much would I love if a neighbor asked me how they can help, instead of communicating through every non-verbal means possible that I have ruined their lives for years to come. I love the positive commitment we can try and have to one another and how it really can make our moments, our days, even our lives better.

But I have thought a lot recently about where the courtesy ends, and unhelpful judgment begins.

We all have some parenting choice that gets under our skin, or freaks us out (a lot) or brings out our inner sanctimommy. I of course have my own. We all do. Well, maybe not the Dalai Lama–I bet he’s like totally Zen about all parenting choices everywhere. But the rest of us? We do.

I think what I’m learning (because aren’t we all still learning every day?) is that in the majority of cases, my best course is to resist saying anything out loud about a child who is not related to me by blood and isn’t hurting my own kids. It doesn’t change anything, and it’s bound not to end well.

And then this happened.

Recently, a friend confessed that he was livid when he saw a child riding a bike down a quiet Upper East Side street without a helmet. He said to the father accompanying her, “No helmet?” And that father did what I bet a lot of us would do. He looked back at my friend, and sneered a firm, “Nope.”

Well. That sure showed him.

My friend asked me it were the right thing and while I understood his point, I was really fast to say, “Don’t do that. I think those are the kinds of comments that get you punched in the nose.”

I’m not sure what purpose it serves, except to make you feel superior for not having made that choice; plus the other parent is likely not to change behavior in the least.

The other issue we discussed was that you never know a parent from a snapshot in time; something I wish the entire world (and certain snarky, parent-shaming tumblr blogs) could figure out sometimes.

Think about it:

We don’t know if that parent texting in the park and “ignoring her child, the poor dear” is dealing with a work emergency or a cancelled sitter or sick older child. We don’t know if the toddler with no socks in the stroller threw such a tantrum that for the first time ever, the parents said screw it; we’re going out without socks on even if it is barely 50 degrees. We don’t know if the kid eating the Snickers bar before breakfast is indulging in a once-in-a-lifetime treat after befalling some horrible family tragedy.

And yeah, we don’t know if that kid with no helmet was riding down that Upper East Side block–carefully, and with her father–to go get her helmet which was waiting for her at the next corner.

We just don’t ever know the whole story, do we?

(Unless we see a young child running, unsupervised, down the beach and straight into the ocean. In cases of imminent danger, I think we don’t need to wait for the the whole story to unfold.)

So I’ve tried really hard over the past few years to pack up the Etiquette Bitch–an alter ego who, upon a lot of self-reflection, I believe comes out more often when I’m angsty or not feeling so good about myself. I admittedly look back at that post series with not a small degree of sheepishness, and hope that while littering on the subway tracks and taking up two parking spaces still make me crazy, I can address them without the whole bitch aspect.

Or at least I can try. I am trying.

Dahli Lizzie? Eh. Probably never.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to other children? If you see something (as they say on the NYC transit system every chance they get) do you say something? If a child is behaving recklessly, if a 5 year-old is stealing a toddler’s shovel in the sandbox and a parent is ignoring it;  if a ten year-old accompanied by her father is riding a bike without a helmet down city streets–do you address it? Do you tell the parents? Do you do it politely or firmly?

I wonder, is it our obligation to mind our own business? Should we always give parents the benefit of the doubt when we see bad behavior that isn’t consistent or repetitive? Or is it our obligation to look after children during those moments when a parent’s attention might be elsewhere?

What are the rules of your own Village?

Because no one wants to get punched in the nose.

[photo copyright © John Bourne, stuckism.com]

{73 Comments}

73 thoughts on “Tattling on bad parents: Also bad parenting?”

  1. If there is a safety issue (like a kid with no helmet) for the child, or another child is being hurt in some way, I would address it politely. I might even move to firmly if the parent seems to be brushing it off.
    Tracie recently posted..Fixing Holes In The StoryMy Profile

    1. This month a new family with 6 children moved in at the end of the block. The parents allow 5 of the kids, aged 10 to perhaps 4, to ride skateboards, bikes and ride-a-longs unsupervised, without helmets, downhill the length of the block in the middle of the street into the cul-de-sac and up onto other residents driveways. I should mention that there is a cross-street midway. It is so dangerous! They do it for hours and hours until the sun sets. Sometimes they lay down on the skateboards. Occasionally they fall off in the middle of the street or crash into the boxes for cable equipment. I am a nervous wreck from watching them from my upstairs office window where I spend my day working. Should I call the police?

  2. I have to agree with saying almost nothing. Not only do I not know the all back story on any parents, other than my closest friends and family, but I cannot begin to know if what I value in childrearing is the same as the parent in question. I bite my lip, even with my siblings, unless I am asked….think it is great practice for one day becoming a grandparent!
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  3. I’ll admit I’m not a crusader, and I do not wish to be punched in the nose. The act would need to be extremely egregious for me to intercede, and then it is likely the sort of thing where my involvement would not involve talking to the parent but calling 911. It would have to be that bad.

    For lesser offenses I silently judge, then I silently judge myself for not saying anything. Sheesh. Parenting my own kids is hard enough without having to decide when and if to get involved with others. I just hope I never see something go horribly wrong that I might have prevented by risking getting punched in the nose.
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  4. In my day job as vice principal of a high school, I humbly give advice to parents of teens (despite having not parented any teens yet myself–I’m taking notes! LOTS of notes!) based on my experiences working with teens and families over 20 years, and in response to despondent or frustrated parents at the end of their ropes. I have to call Child Protection Services sometimes. I see a wide variety of approaches and I listen to a lot of teens talk about their families and parents in particular. I gulp, a lot.

    When I get home to my village, I’m not so anxious to monitor parenting choices, though I watch with reflection on my own instincts and judgments. I am pretty comfortable, however, refereeing brewing conflict among children when I’m the only observer, and if another parent asks me for feedback, I am honest but acknowledge that I parent based on what I am comfortable with for myself, my kids, and my marriage.
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  5. i’m a “say nothinger.” now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when i WANT to say something… but i don’t do it, mainly because i wouldn’t want it done to me. kind of a “you don’t question my parenting b/c it’s none of your business, and i won’t question yours.”
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  6. I surprised myself in the last few weeks for speaking out about other children’s behavior, although it was to the children themselves. I dislike older, larger, much more fast-moving kids who monopolize the smaller parts of the playground when there are clearly smaller children trying to enjoy it. We were at an indoor play place the other day, and there were two older girls in the toddler jump house. One clocked my daughter in the face and knocked her flat on the ground, which I took in stride (it is a jump house) but put me on alert. Within a few minutes she and her friend were pretending to strangle one another against the wall, which I found wholly inappropriate, and contined to literally body-slam the other while children tottered around them. I could stand it no longer, and with no sign of their parents, crawled in, and gave them the Mom, “HEY!” which stopped them cold in their tracks. I told them to stop (basically) and they ended up leaving the bounce house. I expected the moms of the babies around me to say something or maybe nod in agreement over the girls being removed but I got nothing. It bothered me slightly, but I was glad they were gone, and my kid could continue to jump without being placed in unnecessary harm.

    1. I’m with you Emily. If a kid is causing physical harm to my kids, I wouldn’t hesitate to step in. I can only hope the parents would support me and not be defensive. But I understand the defensiveness.

  7. Recently, since we’ve had a baby with Down syndrome, I’ve gotten well acquainted with the parents of special needs kids. That kid with no helmet? Might have SPD, and frankly, her father might be willing to take the risk so his kid can have some joy in her life. This is the lens with which I now view the world.

    I’m going to have to make a lot of choices for our kids. Sometimes we choose to forgo making the baby’s diagnosis the center of our universe because our other kids just need some normalcy. Sometimes we choose to participate in the activities in the special needs community because our family will benefit. We are constantly judged for what we do or don’t do. And you know what? I don’t mind. I don’t mind having the conversation, be it with a stranger or friend. I don’t mind…usually. And other times I mind.

    So, my opinion? Let’s be merciful to one another. To the one offering the assvice, and the one who is irritated by it. To the one who is being a shitty parent and the sanctimommy. We all know what is best, and we all fall short, and sometimes on purpose because our priorities are shifted in that moment. We all judge while scowling at the judges in our own lives. So, just be merciful – especially to that bitch in the mirror.

  8. I’ve had a visit from the sheriff as a result of others’ judgment. So I might be a little biased here.

    I’d venture that parents have different perceptions of not only what’s inappropriate, but what’s dangerous too.

    I’m grateful that on those rare occasions when my kids have been in danger, there’s been no judgment — just genuine concern for their well-being. Judgment would have only made a bad situation much worse.

    Great post.
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  9. Firmly in the say nothing camp. As you said, we can never know the full story. Also, because I’ve been on the receiving end of stuff like the “No helmet?” comment and know how shitty that kind of judgment makes me feel as a parent and I just don’t want to make another parent feel judged like that. Even if the full story is that they willfully chose not to put a helmet on their kid. That’s THEIR parenting prerogative and it isn’t my job to police them. However… I’ve also been on the receiving end of parents trying to help me with my children (when I didn’t need it) and I do try and look at that from the “it takes a community” angle. There’s a difference between the “No Helmet?” comment ( which sounds judgmental) and someone really trying to help. Also – if some kid at the playground is being a dick I have no problem giving them the Mom “HEY!” as someone above mentioned. I think there’s a difference between reprimanding kids who could possibly harm other children and reprimanding someone’s choices as a parent.

  10. The rules of my village (neighborhood) is 20 kids sharing one bike with zero helmets in sight. And 5 kids in the back seat of a Civic without proper restraints. The parents don’t need to be “educated” by a bunch of privileged sanctimommies on the sidewalk. That is offensive to assume that people aren’t aware of safety precautions. It’s easy to make safety devices a priority in your life when your food, shelter and clothes are paid for with some left over. Judgement in this situation is reprehensible.

    Even the parents who can afford helmets, but who have the mentality of “we never needed helmets when I was a kid” – even they don’t need to be “educated”. That’s their conscious choice, whether you like it or not.

    1. I think you’re bringing up class and socioeconomic issues, which adds another layer to the discussion. Really interesting point. Although I’m not sure it’s always a matter of privilege vs non privilege but that’s definitely an idea to consider. It changes if it’s “talking down” to someone versus talking to someone in your peer group.

  11. The issue or different (bad?) parenting does not bother me because I believe other parents are either neglecting their children. It bothers me because my son is at an age when he sees neighbor’s kids riding their bikes without a helmet, classmates eating processed food, children playing violent arcade games, other adults offering candy and lollipops just because, he questions my parenting. I find myself justifying and explaining the helmet, the healthy food etc.
    So there has been many situations where I was torn between saying “because riding without a helmet is dangerous” vs. “We have the helmet rule in our household” to my son, by the parents of the children who are not wearing helmets etc. or can I say “sweetie, we don’t eat those chips because they might cause cancer” when another kid is eating them right next to us?
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    1. Yeah I’d agree “x causes cancer” is probably not the best tact. I don’t want my kids to think that other parents who make different choices are abusive! Eek.

    2. I have run into this issue as well with respect to things like shoes that light up, Disney princesses, etc. My standard response is, “They may do that in their family, but we don’t do it/have that in ours.” I try to keep the judgement to a minimum and state it simply as a matter of fact. Different strokes for different folks.

      1. Can you imagine taking the time to stop a parent on the street and lecture them about their child’s Barbie Ariel? That’s rich.

  12. I feel like I must live in Pleasantville where all the kids wear helmets and all the parents are engaged with their kids. I don’t really see a lot of questionable parent behavior in our community, or maybe I’m the one being judged? Because I do tend to IG at the park. Either way, I am in the say nothing or nearly nothing crowd. I feel like the other parents I know well judge themsleves (as do I) harshly without anyone else’s comments coming into play.

    That said, there was a time once where I did speak up and I don’t regret it. A downstairs neighbor was pregnant and had two little ones. I was in a shared hallway space with groceries when she lost it, terrified my kids with intense yelling and spanking – her little boy bawling. I cop-knocked on the door and asked her if she needed 15 minutes, explained she was scaring all four of our kids right now. I knew she was exhausted and stressed and needed to walk away. She was embarrassed and I’m sure felt judged but she was willing to ask me for help for the rest of time we lived there.
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  13. Mortal danger and children getting injured aside, I only say something if I think I have something positive to offer. For instance, a mom outside our school at the drop off was once torn between keeping an eye on her baby in a stroller and dealing with a kid having a complete meltdown. I offered to watch the baby while she helped her other child calm down and get into the building, and she was grateful and took me up on it. But to on some level scold her about anything? Not helpful. I’ve been in the position of people jumping to conclusions about my parenting and threatening to call Child Protective Services and it’s nightmarish and unproductive. If you are saying something because you are trying to improve a situation, do it thoughtfully. If you are saying something merely to make yourself feel special? Don’t.
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    1. That sounds like a good rule of thumb.

      I wonder how easy it is for most people to be self-aware enough to know what is “helping and trying to improve a situation” and what is not. I still remember an anonymous blogging hate site that was outed, and when the author was on TV defending it, I believe she was truly convinced she had some weird moral imperative to cruelly dissect the lives of other parents.

  14. As much as it pains me to see children riding without helmets, or young children sitting in the front seats in cars, it’s not my business to butt in.

    When it comes to MY children, I will butt in. If another child hits my child on the playground, you can bet that I’ll reprimand the kid. If a kid is blocking the slide and won’t give my kid a turn, I will remind him.her that other children want to use it.
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  15. I called the cops once. I was 20ish, working a fast food drive through. A car came up to the window, and the woman driving REEKED of alcohol. Bad enough, but there in the front seat was her infant, about 7-9 months old (I’m assuming, since she was sitting up on her own) sitting in the seat without a carseat. I mean, she was just sitting on the front seat, a pillow across her lap, the lap belt over the pillow, and the shoulder belt tucked behind her. I don’t care what the whole story was in that case. I walked away from the window, called the cops and gave them the make, model, and license number, and then stalled my ass off. The cops stopped her from leaving, and I gave a statement.
    Of course, she came back to the store a week later and assaulted me, but that put her in jail, and I don’t know her story from there. The cop that interviewed me for the assault was the same one I’d given a statement to a week earlier. He told me that she blew a .19 that night, and that the baby and a toddler that wasn’t with her that night had been placed in protective custody. She also tested positive for coke the day she assaulted me.
    Given all that, I would still involve myself in a situation where I thought a child was in imminent danger. Drunk driving parent, no car seat is imminent danger to me. Kid on a bike with parent is potentially dangerous, but doesn’t meet the imminent death or disability criteria for me. Just be prepared to suffer consequences if you insert yourself into a dangerous situation.

  16. If they are hurting my kids or look like they are in imminent danger, yes I will say and do something. Other than that, I will probably just walk away. Someone elses kid with no helmet riding slowly and timidly with dad is fine. The dad probably knows their child very well and knows that ya, one block, okay without a helmet. My kids are wild and full of energy and will not stay with me or dad and will hurt themselves, so yes I will definitely put them in helmets.
    I remember vividly during my engagement party, my friend was giving her 3 year old grapes, and my annoying aunt sat next to her and said to my other aunt “Grapes are a big choking hazard.” She didn’t even say it to my friend! My friend just responded “she eats this all the time” and proceeded to hand her daughter MORE grapes. I was so annoyed for my friend and my aunt really needed to butt out, especially because my aunt has a few issues of her own in regards to her grown son, and no one has gone to her and ask her what she did wrong in raising my cousin. Maybe if she fed him more grapes as a toddler he wouldn’t be such a loser. 😉
    So for the most part, I stay out of it. Most parents know their kids very well enough that they can make a judgement about whether or not the kid is okay without a helmet, or their daughter is a coordinated enough at chewing that she can eat grapes without having them be cut in 4 pieces and avoid choking. Of course if a kid was physically hurting my child at a playground, or someone elses child is about to run into the street and possibly get hit by a car, I will definitely say and do something.

  17. What a great post. It is so hard sometimes, but then I have to wonder what other parents see when they look at me and my children sometimes.

    Last week at my son’s first baseball practice a few of us parents had to intervene to discipline a child who was behaving unsafely with a bat (including hitting himself on the head–at least he was wearing a helmet). We had to do it A LOT. It was frustrating and one of the other parents wanted to know “where is his parent?”

    We sat there, maybe not so silently, judging the parent. Later, the other mom spoke to the coach about it and she thanked us for stepping in. Then we find out that the child has a some what desperate home life and that last year he was kicked off a team for his behavior but our coach took him in. He is a pretty good player, but he struggles with impulse control and boundaries. But he listened eventually (not perfect, but enough that he didn’t hurt himself or others).

    It is hard not to judge but it just as hard to remember that each parent and child has a story that we can’t even begin to know.
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  18. I’m w/the majority in if a kid isn’t in traffic or otherwise sure to be hurt, I say nothing. I’ve offered to help a few times and been taken up on it and been told to get the hell away. I’ve called the police on a woman beating a child with a shoe in a public restroom because the child didn’t adhere to her “didn’t I tell you not to touch anything in the store” rule. I still remember that girl’s screams. She was perhaps 4, maybe 5. And she was being beaten not only for whatever she touched, but whatever else was on her young mom’s mind. I’ve caught a baby falling backwards on a bus because his mother was too busy yelling at someone in her phone to notice. I grabbed him, righted him, and kept on moving. It’s not for me to judge her because like you said at the outset, I will never know more than that snapshot.
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  19. A few months ago I was at a birthday party with my 5yo son. For once, he was behaving beautifully, and I stood opposite him across a table while he and his friends waited for cake. In front of me were two boys from his class, snacking on carrots, and well, punching the heck out of each other. Their parents weren’t there (it was a drop off party, but we were family friends so I came early for pick up). I asked nicely and calmly for the boys to stop punching, and of course they didn’t. It kept escalating, and finally one boy punched the other in his throat while he was chewing that carrot. Now it was a matter of safety. I grabbed the back of the chair of one of the boys and moved him and the chair to another location, away from the friend who had punched him.

    I watched the face of the boy crumble before he got up from his chair and ran out of the party. I made eye contact with the hosts, then went running after the kid. He cried and screamed that I wasn’t his mother, I wasn’t his teacher, I can’t tell him what to do. I crouched down to his level, told him he’d be missing the cake if he didn’t come inside, and he leaned to within a few inches of my face and then spit at me.

    Yes, someone else’s 5yo spit in my face.

    It was awful and humiliating, and witnessed by other parents who had begun to arrive – but not his parents. I had to leave with my son before they arrived, so I called to let them know what happened. Dad was apologetic on the phone. Mom sent a terse “I’m sorry” email and has treated me like a pariah ever since.

    I don’t regret intervening; had he choked and I’d done nothing to prevent it, I would never have forgiven myself. But am I reluctant to do it again? Absolutely.
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    1. Holy…

      YOU are not the pariah in this case. I can’t imagine my kids saying to any authority figure, “you can’t tell me what to do!” let alone spitting. I’m glad you were looking out for him; you’ll get over it. But I’m really sorry about what seems to be some personality challenges for that little boy.

      1. You’re absolutely right – longer term, the issues this kid has are going to be worse than any impact he had on me that day. Unfortunately, given his mom’s attitude towards me now, I’m not sure she sees it.
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  20. Funny that this is your topic – since I just finished a piece about how “it takes a digital village.” But my piece is about intervening IRL and online when the parents aren’t there. (My kids are older). When do you tattle? When do you intervene? I think we have a responsibility, if we see a kid we know, crossing against the light, to say something. Ditto for dangerous online behavior. When the parents are around, however? I tend to keep my mouth shut unless asked.
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  21. I don’t do it. I just don’t.

    I used to do it and then I stopped….unless someone is about to receive or is receiving physical harm (which is often between my own 2 sons).

    I found that I hated having it done to me – especially as my kids got older and the infractions were a lot worse. It is extremely hard to bite your tongue and not do it, but you just have to –

    With the boys being older, I take the opportunity to explain to them that we do not act in the way we are witnessing and why. It is a teaching moment – NOT only for the boys ….. to learn right from wrong, but also to see that the world is made up of all kinds of parents and we all do things differently (unfortunately).

    BUT – it lends itself to those moments when they say ‘BBBUUUTTT, so and so gets to do this or that’ and I remind them: Remember the time we saw the kid on the leash or that kid skateboarding without a helmet? They get to do that and you don’t –
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  22. I had the most amazing experience at Target a few months ago. I’d taken my three girls, then 2 1/2 year old after dinner on a quick trip to pick up some things for a work meeting the next day. One of my girls ended up having a HUGE tantrum that we never recovered from. I ended up throwing her in the cart and checking out as fast as I could. I was furious, it was embarrassing and I was on the edge of being too rough with her while getting her to sit down in the damn cart already.

    The woman behind me in line could have said a million things, she could have chastised me for being out too late with toddlers (guilty), for taking them shopping (guilty), for not being able to get my daughter to calm down, for balancing one of my other daughters on the handle of the cart while pulling out my wallet (stupid, and guilty). But she didn’t say any of those things. Instead, she looked us up and down and then in a gentle, quiet voice she thanked me. “Thank you, Mom for being patient. Thank you for being a good mommy. You are such a patient Mommy, thank you for being so gentle and taking such good care of your kids.” And suddenly, I was calm. I was that patient mom who was going to be able to parent through this public tantrum without smacking her toddler, without whispering threats in her ear.

    Right after walking out of the store, I realized she had given me an “A” in parenting at the point when I was cramming for an exam, convinced I was a B- parent (I had recently watched a bunch of Benjamin Zander talks). And by believing in me, and relieving me of any external judgement I did manage to rise to the occasion. God, I’m tearing up as I write this, it was a huge turning point for me. So now, I do my level best to hand out A’s whenever I see a parent in struggle. To smile and compliment them, their child or their choice, even if it’s only a small thing.

    1. I love this, Elise. One of the best gifts we can give someone is to tell them that they are already that person that they want to be. And now you’re doing the same thing. So wonderful. Thank you for sharing this!

      PS. The Zanders’ _Art of Possibility_ is worth the read, if you like the talks. 🙂

    2. THIS choked me up. I try REALLY, REALLY hard to do this to other moms of young kids. My kids are 8 & 4, and I still have moments like this, when I wish someone would just look at me and tell me that I CAN DO THIS…. when my husband has been sent away by the Army yet again (though we truly love serving, it is hard), and I’m holding it all together 24/7 and counting the hours/minutes/seconds until bedtime…. I LOVE being that person for other moms – helping, encouraging, rooting and cheering for them. I wish more moms did, too.
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  23. Oh man do I struggle with this. I think the helmet thing is a safety issue and your friend was probably genuinely concerned for that child’s safety rather than trying to shame the parent. That’s the way I would interpret it anyway.

    I used to put my baby’s infant seat in the top of the Target cart. It seemed like it fit. But it took someone writing about how dangerous it was for me to realize that this was not safe. And I stopped doing it. I see new parents do it all the time though and I feel like I should tell them that it’s not safe, since I stopped doing it, but I don’t say anything. And if I ended up witnessing an infant seat tumble for it, I know I would regret keeping my mouth shut forever. So it’s tough. Do you tell your friend it’s not safe to have bumpers in the crib, when it should be common knowledge that bumpers aren’t safe by now? It’s such a hard topic. But you know what? Here’s the thing. I’d rather have a parent shoot me daggers for pointing out safety things, than never say anything and have the unthinkable happen, in the off-chance they just didn’t realize. When we’re more concerned with someone’s feelings than we are with someone’s safety, we’ve crossed the line in the wrong direction.

    1. That’s a really important point Liz, thanks. I think that’s what makes it so tough. We want to do the right thing, we fear the backlash, we don’t want to get involved, but we don’t want to miss a chance to help. Gah.

      And you’re right, my friend just felt concerned. He had just seen that video about the 14 year old boy who died from skateboarding without a helmet and I think it was on his mind.

      Maybe we (me especially) should also try to remember that somethings the judgers can’t be evaluated based on a single snapshot either. It’s not always sanctimony.

  24. I’m a new parent. My daughter is 10 months old. That said, it’s already been challenging for me to not intervene when I see something that has my shrieking, judgmental feathers ruffled and angry. But I haven’t said anything. I will, however, and have in the past, intervene when I see abuse or neglect going on with a child. That’s *everyone’s business* in my mind although I know it’s hard to do. I’ll speak up for a few reasons but one big reason is that I want my daughter to see me as an advocate for someone who’s in trouble or who can’t speak for themselves in hopes of her doing the same thing. I’ll also intervene, as others have pointed out, if my child is getting hurt. There’s no question about that either for me.
    Thanks for a terrific post, Liz.

  25. I silently judge a lot and do a bit of eye-rolling at the people in Target at 9pm with their obviously over-tired toddlers. But I try to believe that they’re doing it because sometimes you’re out of diapers and toilet paper, and sometimes there is just no one else to watch the kids. I am a lot more annoyed at people with the over-tired kids in restaurants at 9pm. Can’t get or afford a sitter? Then you you go out earlier, or you don’t go out at all.

    But, the only time I ever intervene is if another kid is hurting mine. I was that mom on the playground, yelling at the older kids stampeding the toddler areas when mine was little. I would look around first, for another parent to be paying attention, but more often than not, whoever was “in charge” was the oldest teenager in the bunch. I didn’t like doing it, but what was I supposed to do? Let my wobbly 2-year old get trampled? And the older ones always knew better.

    Can we talk about “boundary issues?” My son is now seven, and doesn’t always open his mouth & stand up for himself when he probably should. We were somewhere over the weekend, standing in a line behind a woman who was distracted. Her son, probably a little younger than mine, was waving a sword around. Closer and closer he got to my son’s face. For reasons I still don’t understand, my son said nothing, so I finally said, loud enough for her to hear, “Please stop doing that so close to his face.” Mom reached behind her & yanked the kid away, never looked up, never made eye contact, never offered an apology.

    Yes, it’s true that I couldn’t know the whole story, if there was one. But don’t we all have “issues,” and don’t we all have to respect a minimum of each other’s personal space?

  26. Wow. The comments have been really interesting to read. Here’s another situational monkey wrench.: I’m working on a story about a partially deaf teenager. When he was little he hated wearing his hearing aids, so when he did have them on his mom had to shout incredibly loud to be heard. Imagine how her actions were interpreted at the playground or grocery store.

    1. I’m that mom. My daughter is hard of hearing, and she has difficulty hearing in noisy situations. She’s unaided for a variety of reasons too involved to explain here. She’s older now so she knows how to adjust in situations where hearing is difficult for her, but when she was little, the playground was judgy city for me. I recall once trying to get her attention from far away (approaching her and giving her a touch cue worked better, but I couldn’t get to her quickly enough through the crowded play structure). I yelled her name, and a mom nearby looked up and sent daggers through me with her eyes. I looked at her and said, “She’s partially deaf.”

      The mom quickly looked away and wouldn’t make eye contact with me and then left. That was a valuable lesson for me. I throw no stones.
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  27. I’m with Barbara (Further up in the comments) due to being a parent of a child with SPD you just have no idea what the situation is and unless physical harm or danger is about to happen then it should be left alone. I’ve had so many people comment on my third child in the last year due to her behavior or basically what she is wearing or not wearing in the moment, at Target, dance class, whatever and it makes me want to hand out business cards with an explanation. She has Sensory Processing Disorder and sometimes not zipping up her coat in January is the only thing getting us out the door. Or with no socks or wearing a bathing suit over four pairs of pants. I pick my battles and comments or advice from other parents about her and my parenting skills should be done so wisely.

  28. I have, and do discuss parenting strategies with friends; the exchange of ideas is helpful and I don’t feel judged if someone has a suggestion for me. I might intervene with the kids if another parent wasn’t stepping up. But it would be rude to comment on a stranger’s parenting, assuming there wasn’t an imminent safety issue.

    Having said that, the playground is full of landmines. Not long ago my son was balancing on a concrete retaining wall when a clearly younger girl wanted to follow him. I said something to the mom about her child being nearly ready to balance on her own, meaning to be complimentary to the child’s bravery and skill, but this mom took it as a criticism of her holding her daughter’s hand. Sadly she chose to defend her hand-holding by telling me — in the child’s hearing — how uncoordinated her daughter was. So there I was, left feeling both ill-mannered and sad that I’d inadvertently set a child up for a put-down.

    I think sometimes the judgement we perceive is just that, a perception; giving people the benefit of the doubt works both ways. We impoverish ourselves conversationally when we are all on the defensive. Oh well, there’s always the weather…

  29. I am that mom that actually intervenes. In olden times (boy I do sound like grandma), whole neighboorhood was corralling all kids around neighboorhood. There were no “my” kids and “their” kids, if any kid was doing something inappropriate, he/she was certain to get a mouthful from whichever adult was around. But that had drawbacks – the whole village has same/similar opinion on child-rearing, and there was not much space to deviate; any “extreme” deviation from median parenting model was raising eye-brows.
    I have intervened heavily on tobogganing occasion – whole hill for our group of about 40 kids, ranging from 5 years to teens, most of them knowing at least 5 other kids from group. And, as expected, on the queue to go back up the hill, teens pushed and pulled and skipped the queue. I got to the bottom of the hill, helped some of the younger kids hook their tubes and reminded teens that there is no glory in trumping over youngsters. I sounded self-righteous, but I did not care – everyone was in line within 10 minutes, and since line became more orderly, everyone was moving faster overall. And yes, pre-teens thought of me as “bitch”, but enough kids knew me personaly that they did not dare tell me that in face. There was one little girl that kept trying to skip the line, only one that I had to repeat the “line starts there” mantra. Toward the end, one mother came down on tube, and tried to strike a conversation, then to cut in front of me. I watched in amazement when she struggled to get past my left shoulder (I was stubbornly unmoving) and then to my right (still could not) until she saw her daughter and “helped” her hook a tube (and mother skipping line with her). You guessed it, it was the mother of the kid that reatedly tried to skip the line.
    At the end, I was annoyed, cold and tired. But coming back to top, among the group of lesse-fair parents that always react badly when anybody else as much as looks cross at their kids, I got compliments for organizing the chaos. So I’ll keep doing it. Reminding everybody to pick up litter. Holding doors for whoever is behind me. Saying thank you and making eye-contact with washroom-cleaners. Reminding teens to watch (wash, maybe?) their mouths. Because “village” starts with me.

    In terms of safety/risk debate, we also have to be cognizant that marketed “dangers” so not make greater dangers. In 1997, 225 children ages 14 and under died in bicycle-related crashes. (Motor vehicles were involved in more than 200 of these deaths, which makes me wander what is the culprit here?) Lets contrast that with 1225 kids that died in car accidents and 726 drownings. Yet nobody would even think about making a comment when parents are strapping their kids into a car, or buying the house with pool. Bike-related injuries are behind playground-related injuries, but we are not asking for playground closures, or wearing helmets while using monkey bars. Although it seems we are getting close (maybe we should?)

    1. Thank you so much for making the observation about relative risks. All my kids have bike helmets, which they use on longer rides or any time they might have to cross streets. But my 7 and 9 year olds also like to ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, which are between 2 and 9 or so houses away. Yes, I let them do this unsupervised, it’s definitely part of the culture in this neighborhood and I’m glad for that. Anyway, it would really grate if somebody made a comment to me about that – I am aware of the risks, and I am also aware that there is no such thing as a life without risks.

      If kids are hurting each other on the playground, I’ll usually take it up with the kid directly rather than telling the parent, unless it’s SUPER egregious.
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  30. I don’t have a car, so I am out with my kids biking all the time and get a lot of comments from others about my habits. Once in a while we’ll just forget a helmet — my youngest likes to run a lot, so he’ll jump off the bike, take his helmet off, jump back on — you can guess that once in 20 or 30 times we’ll forget to put the helmet on. Or I’ll be on errands and pick the kids up without having remembered one of them didn’t have a helmet. Etc. So I can absolutely relate to this guy with the helmetless kid — and every time I get a comment about how I’m endangering my kids on the bikes (usually with their helmets on), I think quietly to myself how much I’d like to quote death statistics — Marija, I have to bite my tongue not to shout to people, “how dare you take your kid in that Ford Deathtrap!” every once in a while ;). Bicycling is actually less dangerous than running or walking.

    One day I myself hadn’t worn my helmet, and on a busy street a man screamed at me (with my kids on my bike) that I was going to leave them orphans. I almost fell over, and I had to stop after we passed through the intersection because I was shaking too hard to continue pedaling. Obviously no one here is a screamer (unless their child has his hearing aid out :). But even quieter judgment, I believe, often shakes a parent so badly that they lose faith in themselves, creating a vicious cycle. Love the idea of telling someone else they’re an A parent! That’s really beautiful.

    My approach to everything in parenting is, empathy first. I’ve been the mom with the kid whose behavior seems totally unacceptable. (Things are lots better now.) I’ve been humiliated, shamed, scolded, treated like a pariah, had the principal and the cops and child services called on me. I see everyone with so much more compassion now.

    That said, there are so many times I want to help, because I’ve been there, and so often I am left without a good opening line. That mom who is carrying her screaming kicking four-year-old over her shoulder out of Trader Joe’s with the baby in the Ergo? I’ve been her. I really want to offer something. But I don’t know if there is anything in that moment.

    Maybe next time, I’ll try, “oh, you’re doing such a good job of holding it together. Do you want help with the groceries?”
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  31. I keep my mouth shut unless the kids in question are in my care.

    A few years ago, I’m pretty sure someone called Mall Security on me. It was the day I put both of my screaming children, yes both of them, in timeout in the mall food court by the Sunglass Hut. You would have thought no one ever put a kid in timeout before….the stares I got!

    And I thought I had done an excellent job of keeping my emotions in check. My 3 yr old was having one of those my-body-has-no-bones-fall-on-the-floor dramatic meltdowns because I said no to the Disney Store because we needed to leave. We disagreed a few times, gave her a warning about timeout if she didn’t quit HARRASKING me….and she didn’t, so I said fine, as long as we are staying, you can sit right here in timeout for 3 minutess. Then my 5 yr old said something ugly, so I put her in timeout too. They each got separate corners while I stood there taking some deep breaths. I guess they were making quite a scene, crying and carrying on. The five year old got two more timeouts before making it to the exit (for running away, and for standing in front of the stroller so as to not allow me to pass).

    Security never said anything….he just watched us the whole time…closely. I guess every other parent gives in to the demands of their children at the mall just to keep them quiet. But I’m mean…if they have earned consequences for unacceptable behavior, then they serve their timeout immediately. 🙂

  32. I live on a (usually) quiet inner-city street and have been dealing with a nightmare parenting call since our new neighbor moved in. They are temporary but troublesome & they have two small children. The mom is always high, the dad is a drug dealer & they constantly have knock-down fights, sketchy visitors, all-night parties, etc. While I’m doing everything I can think of to get these people off my street for the safety of my own kids, I can’t bring myself to call CPS. I can’t guarantee the kids would end up in a better situation so I don’t call, but it isn’t an easy situation. Can the system designed to protect abused/neglected kids be worse than their abusive/neglectful parents? Sadly, I think so.

    1. Oh God Jade, I’m so sorry. I lived in a 3-family home with a family like that when I lived in Providence and I can only imagine how it would have been magnified had I been a mother then.

      I actually did call the police and they were useless as hell. I heard them beating their slightly learning disabled teen son (again) and called, and the police basically said unless we catch them in the act we can’t do anything. To this date I feel guilty that I couldn’t have done more–but I don’t regret calling at all.

      This is a whole other topic. Oof. So sad.

    2. Well…. As a teacher I was a mandated reporter. That means that I had to file the report with CPS if I suspected abuse or endangerment and it was in the hands of CPS to make the call about the best placement for the child. Just because you call once doesn’t mean CPS will swoop in and remove the children (in fact, they probably won’t) but they can at least begin documentation.

  33. Simple question with complex answers: Does it help or hurt?

    “No helmet?” doesn’t help. People know the recommendations.

    “Your running toddler went up that aisle, can I help?” does help.

    I am really glad you wrote this. I just read two very harsh posts from moms about other parents and kids. They bothered me.

    I could tell by community response that I was supposed to laud, praise and go along with the first post to me it was a massive empathic fail that alienated rather than built community. The second was about health and safety and took issue with something we happen to do, under medical advice. I’m tired of being the curmudgeon who offers the Alternate Perspective though.

    But you know, it’s always more complicated and so much more than any of us know.

    Therefore, does it help or hurt? Could it shame? Is it self-righteous? Does it presume? Do you assume to know what’s best? Or do you reach out a hand, and ask how to help?

    At the store recently, I had this huge empathy for a mom. It was like me, 7 years ago. The dad wandered off on his own. The mom had a baby in the basket, and a toddler walking beside her. The toddler raced away. Mom screamed for dad and had this horrible Sophie’s Choice moment of race after kid or stay with basket, because racing with basket was not the ideal option. Not in a crowded store with a loosely belted baby. She did what any mom would: tried to do it all. She scurried with basket as fast as she could after the toddler, yelling for the dad. He finally caught up and stayed with the basket while mom, near hysterics, raced off. She caught the toddler and came back to the basket, in a state. She looked around and I gave her the Face of Understanding. She locked on me and then resumed shopping with the family. I hope that whatever shame and bad she felt went away from getting the Face of Understanding instead of Face of Judge.
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  34. I am on the side of not saying anything and giving the parents the benefit of the doubt — especially since I give my children processed foods for lunch once in a while, who am I to judge? 🙂 One time, I did say something. We were leaving a circus and I was alone while my husband took the kids to the bathroom. I saw a woman run up to a boy about 7/8 and start yelling at him in a language I didn’t understand. She then started hitting him, spanking him, slapping him across the face. He was crying and screaming no. The horror of it was that people walked by with their children and looked but quickly looked away and increased their pace — all without saying anything. I went to the woman and screamed, “stop hitting him.” She looked at me in shock but stopped. It looked as if he had gone ahead and she had misplaced him for a bit so when she found him her emotions caught the best of her. I was horrified that no one else said anything.

  35. I generally don’t say things to parents if it doesn’t seem they can see it what is going on. Playgrounds can get to be crazy and wild, right? That said, I will admit that it is really, really hard for me to watch parents let their kids ride around standing in shopping carts — that’s a concussion waiting to happen and it physically makes my stomach churn to see kids standing like that.

    However, I keep my piehole shut. Why?

    Because I have been judged for co-sleeping, I have been judged for giving my babies curry, I have been judged for letting my kids play in our front yard without me in arm’s reach, I have been judged for the lack of a helmet in our front yard, I have been judged for letting my 1st grader walk home from school, I have been judged for letting my kids cross the street.

    To complicate things even further, my husband is from India and his standards of parenting are often very, very different than Ye Olde White Bread Suburbia (and sometimes, my own) and again, with all the F*@king JUDGING. So, I keep my mouth shut.

    And I wish others would do the same.
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  36. I showed my writing students this TED Ed video today to help them think about assumptions and judgements we make in our own lives. And while this is from a lesson for teenagers, I think it is true of the very situations you discuss above. Maybe if more of us understood how the “ladder” of our sub-conscious works, we’d be better able to help each other and ourselves.

    http://ed.ted.com/lessons/rethinking-thinking-trevor-maber
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  37. “you never know a parent from a snapshot in time”

    Amen. Just in my own Facebook feed today I’ve seen people making snarky comments about parents bringing coughing kids to the store, moms letting their kids text their friends from parents phones, kids acting angry and frustrated at school. And it’s all about the other person’s bad parenting.

    I (or my kids) have done all those things. And there is always a backstory. (I’m tempted to go back and write that quote under every one of those status updates.)

    I agree with you – imminent danger – absolutely. Judgement call you wouldn’t make, absolutely MYOB. All the gray area in between takes tact and relationships.
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  38. I think the issue with a lot of the “helpful” folks are they are helping those who don’t need help. My toddler wouldn’t wear a jacket, all winter long. It was amazing the number of people concerned for my clearly well-cared for child riding in her fancy stroller without a coat on the Upper West Side. I always suggested that if they really cared about child welfare they knew as well as I did that there were plenty of children who could use an adult taking an interest in them, but clearly this child was not one of them.

    I guess what I’m saying is at some point it becomes another flavor of mommy wars and judging kids who are being parented just fine even if not exactly how you would do it, all when there are so many children who could really use some help.
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  39. This is such an interesting topic. I loved the comments as much as the post.

    You’ll find me sitting on the bench with those for whom circumstances matter. Kid acting dangerously on the playground with parents not paying attention? Say something to the kid. Group of older kids being jerks or using their age/size to their advantage over younger kids? Intervene. Helmet-less kid riding a bike w/a parent? Ignore (but to be honest, probably judge silently).

    The one that actually gets me is the car seat. I’m a bit of a flag waving freak when it comes to car seat safety – the 3 year old child of a friend’s cousin died in a car wreck – but I rarely say anything when I see kids buckled w/bulky coats on, loose straps, chest straps at the crotch, etc. I wish people were better educated on what’s safe and what’s not, because in most cases, I think it’s actually a lack of knowledge and not conscious dissent. And yet I still bite my tongue and hope for no car wrecks.

    Interestingly, this weekend my youngest was throwing the mother of all fits as we were getting ready to pay at The Home Depot. Since my husband was there, I took her to the car while he and our oldest paid. Not one person said anything to me as I wrangled a flailing, screaming child from inside the store to the other end of the parking lot – barely even one glance of eye contact, much less an offer for help. I’m sure that the Amber Alert on those parents who kidnapped their own kids & fled to Cuba was on my mind, but I had the thought that if I was kidnapping the child (definitely not the case), then I would have been able to drive away with nobody giving me a second glance and probably very few being able to give a description. Not saying I wanted someone to intervene and/or scold me for removing my screaming child from a store, but my child is too young to understand that screaming “This isn’t my mommy” or something of the like would attract some attention, so I shudder to think of the outcome had it been a sinister situation. An offer to help (though not needed) would have been commonplace back in the day and now, is seen as intrusion and overstepping.

    I like the idea of just asking if the person needs anything – maybe their full buggy is just inside the store and could be pushed to the car. Maybe the car keys are out of reach given the flailing child. Or maybe a frazzled parent will walk away having had their bucket filled a bit by a caring and kind stranger.

  40. As a “newer” parent – and as a tangent – I find myself sometimes asking questions of other parents that could be deemed judgmental but aren’t – they are sincere questions. So I wind up having to then go back and make sure they know that the question wasn’t a judgment but rather a sincere inquiry. And also not a “comparison” of what we do vs what they do. A weaker example – but the other day I was speaking to a friend who had previously swore off all “empty calorie treats” for her daughter. When she was over – she gave her daughter some trader joe’s fruit snacks. I asked her about them in a way that *could* have come off judgy but wasn’t. I was genuinely curious if she had changed her philosophy/was it because her daughter was older/etc. Fortunately when I rewound a bit and made it clear I was sincerely curious – she laughed and said she knew I wasn’t being judgmental. But she’s a good friend. So I don’t think that would always be the case if someone didn’t have history there. So I guess my point is that both “parties” should be cognizant that they might not understand the full picture. IE – in your example – the guy with the daughter doesn’t really know if the person saying “no helmet” is being judgmental – or inquiring because they aren’t sure whether or not it’s acceptable. It goes both ways. We don’t know their story and they don’t know why we might be asking or commenting. That’s all.

  41. My 7 YO daughter recently borrowed a Barbie from a friend, after a playdate at that friend’s house. She’s played with this friend many times and the mother and I are acquaintances and have no issues/concerns about each other (that I know of!). I don’t like Barbies as toys for young girls. After she had returned the Barbie, she asked me to buy her one. I told her “No, I don’t like Barbies.” She asked why. I explained, in 7 YO terms, that I didn’t like the “message” young girls get from Barbies (I went into more detail but I don’t feel I need to explain it all here….everyone knows the arguments).

    Later on, my daughter bumped into the friend and mother. My daughter asked the mother, “Why do you let [friend] play with Barbies? My mom thinks they are bad.” Gack!! The mother responded, “Well, I don’t worry about things like that, and you have a different rule in your house.”

    Thankfully, the mother is still talking to me and our daughters are still friends. 🙂 Different strokes for different folks….and let’s all be a little more tolerant of other’s parenting choices.

  42. I’ve had this post saved in my reader for a time when I could focus and read it, and I’m glad I did! I feel judged often when I take my 3 young kids out by myself because they’re such a handful at times. Granted a lot of that might just be the fact that 2 of them are identical twins and people like to look at them. And I polled my FB friends and most of them with 1-2 kids said that they look at mothers with 3+ kids in awe. So a lot of that is me being paranoid.

    But I completely agree with your main point. We ARE only seeing a snapshot of someone’s life. As I dragged my girls crying to the car yesterday after a total park fail (it was late; they were too tired to stop there in the first place), I could only hope that the other parents didn’t think that this was our normal. They had no idea how good my girls had been all day, and that’s why I decided a last minute stop was alright in the first place.
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