"You Are the Worst Mommy Ever!"

July 31, 2006

Not sure if you have been publicly scolded by strangers for your parenting tactics, but I could relate to writer Katy Read’s recent essay in Brain, Child Magazine, “Scoldings from Strangers.”

Read hilariously recounted a number of incidents, in which well-meaning strangers scolded her for her two sons’ misdeeds. Incidents such as running around a store with piles of expensive rugs to the times her boys took off their seatbelts in the car. A moving car, that is.

Still, I don’t blame the scoldings on the boys. Not even in the Burger King incident.

True, they rushed into the playland yelling and bouncing off the giant indoor structure’s net walls. True, there was one other kid there, a toddler about their age, who squatted in the corner watching with wide fearful eyes. But they weren’t hurting the timid child or even paying much attention to him. Still, I saw the risk of an accidental shove or stepped-on foot and headed over to tell my sons to settle down a bit.

Just then a man — big, bald, muscle-shirted, tattooed — shoved his way through the brightly colored tables. In my memory, he crashes through the furniture like Godzilla demolishing high-rises in downtown Tokyo.

“Those kids are fucking crazy!” the man bellowed. “Those kids belong in a fucking jail!”

Thankfully, I have never had a Hell’s Angel look-alike reprimand me over Ari. But I have had plenty of public scoldings.

The most common scold I have received — at least three of them — have been by older women who tell me Ari is straying too far and someone could kidnap him. Probably the most embarrassing incident was at Whole Foods when I left a newborn Ari in the shopping cart for a moment to place my produce in a plastic bag.

I turned around and there she was, a proud African-American woman planted next to my shopping cart as she projected to the entire produce aisle, “Whose baby is this?” When I sheepishly claimed he was mine, I received a lecture similar to one I got from my dad in high school when I crashed his car. “I could have stolen your baby! You see that door over there? I could have pulled the carrier off your cart and taken him.”

I mumbled a “thank you” while my eyes stung with tears. Like Read, I usually don’t respond to these scoldings because I am afraid of further setting off the preacher. But usually the resentment builds up and I end up painting the scolder as a monster or just plain old crazy. “But she hadn’t combed her hair that day! Clearly she’s crazy,” I tell myself and other people.

I think I am prime bait for scolding because I am a young mother. I had Ari at 26.

But Read brought up a good point in her essay. During our parents’ time, there was a communal approach to raising children. It was perfectly acceptable for a neighbor to rebuke other people’s children for their misdeeds. Nowadays in the age of building children’s self-esteem, it is a social faux pas to reprimand a child that is not yours. It is much more acceptable to blame the mother.

Sure, old-timers may fondly remember childhoods when neighbors would keep an eye on each other’s kids, when the woman down the block wouldn’t hesitate to pop onto her front porch in her apron to reprimand some young rapscallion. These days, though, nobody wants to be that mean old lady.

Which is not to say that all of the villagers have given up on raising the child. Some have simply redefined their role. Now they help out by keeping an eye on the mother.

Their concerns are understandable. We are acutely conscious, these days, of the destructive potential of a mother’s neglect or cruelty. We are buffeted by news reports of genuinely horrific child abuse. We hear witnesses recalling, too late, the warning signs — the unexplained bruises, the odd absences, the nervous silences — that the neighbors shrugged off and the authorities ignored…Some people do not wait for bruises to appear.”

Read’s essay made me laugh at my own scoldings. I will try not to take future scolds so personally. But this is what gets me: Surely, the preacher could differentiate between neglect and a moment of mental lapse as an exhausted mom shops with her newborn. It’s not like I left Ari unattended in a grocery aisle like he were Punky Brewster. He was within my peripheral vision and, really, no more than 10 feet away.

While I wish we could return to the days when we looked out for one another, I don’t like busy bodies. It’s irritating to be judged as a parent based on a single incident that took all of a minute’s time.