I’ve been running around doing a lot of Christmas shopping today. Partly because I needed to, and partly because I’ve been suffering from a serious case of writer’s block. I asked my Facebook friends for help, and, as always, they came through with some fantastic ideas. You’ll be seeing those in the coming days (except for the one about learning science in Finnish…sorry, Jamie!). But it also made me realize that I didn’t really have writer’s block; I just didn’t want to write what was eating through my soul. Partly because some people might be offended, partly because some people may think I’m talking about them when I’m not…ad infinitum. But I don’t think I’ll get any meaningful work done until I write it, so here goes…
If you’ve ever watched a child behaving abominably in public, with his frenzied mother trying to contain the situation, you’ve probably thought, “Give me that kid for a week and I’d have him fixed.” I know you have, because I’ve done it, too. Before I realized that not everything can be fixed with rules and consequences. That some things are too big to be resolved by reading the right parenting book. And that it’s the ultimate in arrogance to think you could do a better job than that other mom.
Sure, some moms are lazy, self-involved, or struggling with their own demons. But there are more moms who have tried and tried and tried, who feel like they’re constantly punishing their kids and getting nowhere. Because there are some kids who don’t care about being punished. Who can’t be reasoned with. Who are so consumed with their own pain that any punishment you could add is irrelevant. They’re not bad kids. They’re just kids who are hurting so badly, who are so tormented by their own emotions, that it takes every ounce of concentration just to get through the day without falling apart. The child you see having a meltdown because his mom won’t buy him gum isn’t really crying over gum. He’s crying because that stick of gum unplugged all the emotions he’d been reining in all day and, like water bursting through a dam, once a little crack appeared in his control, it was all over.
If you think you can fix this child with the proper disciplinary approach, you’re wrong. Thanks to Supernanny, a lot of moms think it’s just a matter of finding the right technique. But I’d be amazed if Supernanny didn’t have an occasional assist from pharmaceuticals, because some of those kids had problems that are bigger than her foolproof techniques.
And that brings me to another point – I have to watch myself, too. I’ve developed what I think is pretty good radar. I see some kids act up and think they’re just having a bad day; other kids’ meltdowns set off every alarm bell I have. There’s a certain quality to a tantrum that tells me it’s more than just a tantrum. And I have to remind myself that, no matter what I’ve been through or how much I’ve learned, I have no right to assume I know more than the other mom does. No right to hint around that the behavior might be not quite normal. At the very most, I may drop a hint or two about my experiences. And if there’s no response, I drop it. Because while I may think I know best; I don’t. I don’t have a clue what that family’s life is like, what they’ve tried, what they haven’t tried, etc. Despite wanting to rush in and rescue, I have to give the other mom the same benefit of the doubt that I want for myself.
I know most of the “I could do better” moms mean well. But be humble enough to know that, in most cases, you couldn’t. You just don’t know enough to realize it. You don’t see that the other mom ignores backtalk because she’s trying to avoid a bigger meltdown. You don’t realize that, although a little backtalk may be at the top of your “choosing my battles” list, it might not even make the first page of someone else’s. Bottom line, you don’t have a clue. And neither do I when I’m on that side of it, and I have to remind myself of that more than you may think from reading this post. I’m a Type-A fixer and rescuer – and a recovering know-it-all. I tend to fall into the trap of thinking that the other mom I see struggling could surely benefit from what I’ve learned over the last few years. But that’s just arrogance talking. I’m barely an expert on my own child; I’m certainly not an expert on hers. And I have no right to assume I know better.
That doesn’t mean you should never try to help. Just don’t assume that you know how to help. A mom who’s trying to handle a kid in the middle of a meltdown might need you to call her husband or the child’s doctor. She might need you to dig a medication out of her purse. She might need you to keep an eye on her other kids. Ask. When everybody else is either staring or rushing in the opposite direction, that offer of help can go a long way. And asking what you can do reminds her, at the time she needs it most, that she is the expert on her child.