Just like you, the love I have for my children is ferociously and unconditionally deep. Not all moments are happy, but the good ones satisfy my soul. A freshly bathed baby viscerally and immediately transports me back to fond memories. When my oldest quietly shares a private feeling, it hooks me in. When my middle son’s eyes transform into tiny slits, and he lets out a hysterical giggle, his youthful joy is contagious. And my youngest, she gives the best bear hugs. Her love emanates through her little chubby arms that can barely wrap around my neck. I luxuriate in the warmth. I live for these moments of love and connection. You know these feelings, too. We’re all connected through the common experience of unyielding and jarring love. We’re also connected by the moments of difficulty, uncertainty, and frustration. Unfortunately, we often lose sight of these commonalities and find ourselves judging and criticizing each other. I frequently hear, “That Mom should not let her kid...” and “I would never...” as if they somehow know best about another person’s reality. We focus on points of differentiation, creating distance, hostility, and loneliness in an already draining parenting culture. We use our personal take on parenting to assess and judge other’s behavior rather than to share in the many points of mutual understanding – those hugs and those days you feel like you’re losing your mind. Parenting is hard enough. Let’s apply some basic psychological practice and assume a non-judgmental, empathic stance – not only for our own good, but also to model empathy for our children. Research shows people behave best when they feel supported and good about themselves. Parents thrive and are free to raise the healthiest children possible when they don’t feel judged for their decisions (good or bad). Making mistakes is an organic way humans learn.
Recently, on my town’s community Facebook page, a resident posted “a friendly reminder not to leave a child unattended in a car” after she saw a toddler buckled in a car seat down the block from a coffee shop while the parent presumably got a coffee. A storm of judgment erupted. “Should have taken a picture and really shamed her...bad parent.” “I probably would have called 911.”“It was extremely negligent. I would teach the parent an important lesson. Inexcusable.” This pinned a modern day scarlet letter to the minivan with the young, unattended child. The comments unleashed the punitive reprisal of an unforgiving, middle-upper-class community, and read as a threat to other parents to not step away from their children or else.Ironically, the act of leaving a child in the car to run a quick errand is obviously contentious, but NOT illegal in Massachusetts. And although many people may feel that the child was in grave danger, the statistics don’t support that. Violent crime rates have decreased since the 1970s, for both children and adults. According to the FBI, violent crime is at a historic low. NPR reported on how we have come to judge parents for putting their children at perceived, but unreal risk. The irony is that a child is much more likely to experience a dangerous event like choking (1/3,408, The National Safety Council) or be killed in a motor vehicle accident (1/113, The National Safety Council) than he would be kidnapped by a stranger (.00016%, according to U.S. Census Report in 2000; 1.6 children per 1,000,000). Harvard law blogger, Phillip Greenspun, cites a U.S. Justice Report and states that it would take an average of 26,000 years of a child sitting alone in a parking lot before that child would be kidnapped by a stranger – and 50 percent of these children would be returned. The intention of this essay is not to debate whether this was a sound decision or not, but rather to highlight the intense judgment present right here in my own town. Much attention has been paid to the divisiveness of our country, but clearly thrives in our educated, progressive town as well. Most often, the criticism is unintentional and automatic – casual comments about neighbor’s choices made in a few quick clicks on a public forum, spewing judgment that you’d probably never hear in person. We often feel justified when it comes to ‘the best interest of the child,’ but that view is unempathetic and short sighted. It creates a hostile environment where people parent out of fear. This is dangerous. In therapy, we know telling someone how to behave is pointless. It creates a space where secrets live, negative feelings pervade, and bad things brew. We need to pause, step back, and think about how we contribute to our culture. Are you behaving in a way that is consistent with your overall belief in caring compassion? Do you want to raise empathic children? I am sure your answer is a resounding yes. A large, 30-year study from the University of Michigan found that we are raising kids who are significantly less empathic than prior generations. College-aged kids were deemed 40 percent less empathetic than their peers 30 years ago. How can we teach empathy if we don’t model it? Do as I say, but not as I do? Let’s begin with empathy and kindness at home and in our towns. Think about all the ways you feel connected to the mother in question on the Facebook thread. Focus on how she is relatable, how you can relate to her. How can you help, rather than judge? Could you wait around to make sure the kid is safe rather than quickly calling the police?I am sure that mother loves her child as ferociously and unconditionally as you love yours. She hugs and snuggles, laughs and plays, just like you. She is there, present and unyielding, just like you are. Practice empathy. Practice love. Practice acceptance. That is good parenting. It is healthier for you, and your children. And it builds a better future for us all.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.