The internet, from Facebook to Instagram, is full of scathing reports of parents behaving badly in public. From shouting at their kids in Walmart to spanking them in the bathroom stall at Disney world, we love to call out others for their mistakes. We can make them sound like monsters, terrible adults taking preying on the defenseless, unable to control their emotions and anger. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT, we shout into the series of tubes, SO SHOCKING.
Today, I am sure someone is gleefully reporting on the mother they saw hit her three year old at the zoo. AWFUL.
That mother was me. I smacked Evan, right out in the open for God and the Italian ice girl and the wrinkled, judging eyes of the elephants to see. He staggered sideways, his eyes filling with tears as I picked him up and held him while casting furtive glaces around to see if anyone was calling Child Protective Services. No one went that far, but the looks I got made my scalp prickle.
The whole thing was an accident, but even if you suspected that you have already started judging me. I was explaining elephants to Caroline, crouched slightly to point out their ears and tusks and big feet at a level she could understand both physically and developmentally. Evan was tired of the elephants – “Mommy, don’t wanna see the elephants! Wanna see the tortoises, fighting tortoises Mommy, this way!” (To lighten the tone of this post, I’ll tell you the tortoises weren’t fighting but since that’s what Evan called the thing they were doing – and doing loudly – I didn’t correct him.) In his excitement, Evan grabbed my leg and yanked, twisting me off balance. As I tipped toward the pavement I flung my arms out involuntarily and one of them connected with the side of his body. It hurt me more than it hurt him, truly. He was surprised and shocked but not actually injured. I swallowed my quick flash of adrenaline and hugged him as tight as I could, murmuring apologies and looking for bruises.
But if you had also been looking at the elephant’s ears and tusk and big feet you would have turned when you heard the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh followed by a crying child. You would have seen a mother looking guilty and ashamed and a little boy saying “I sorry Mommy! Please don’t hit me!” You would have judged and condemned. You might have tweeted or taken a picture of us as we walked away to put on Instagram. You might have shared what you had seen with your message board. I might have done the same, before I was on the other end.
We are reminded all the time not to judge other people’s choices. “You don’t know what they’re going through” we chant, “You don’t know their circumstances. Do what is right for your family.” But we make exceptions for the Really Bad Things. We know we are better than Those People and Those Choices and no matter what they say there is No Excuse. And sometimes that is true. I’m not saying you should doubt your instincts if you see a child being harmed or in danger. But I am saying things are not always what they look like, even when you see them with your own eyes, and maybe a private yet public social media shaming shouldn’t be your first reaction.