It’s been discussed before and will be the topic of many parenting articles to come. I’ve written about it myself from an arm’s length away. Today, following a spate of articles written by people tut tutting parents while trying to appear like they are taking the high road in the interest of our children, I say enough is enough. I don’t care how Ryan Reynolds holds his baby or whether a reality contestant from Britain who now considers herself a voice on all things parenting thinks I should be working or staying at home. I’m tired of the stance the media has taken on parenting. And I’m especially tired of the way parents skirt the issue on social media boards and opinion sites, all the while contributing to an undercurrent of judgement.
So, rather than giving a list of reasons why parenting guilt is dangerous and judgement is counter productive I will share a story of my own. It’s the reason that I refuse to judge another parent for the actions of their child, or to judge a child for the actions of a parent. It’s the reason why I think the word judgement should be left out of the English language except in the circumstances of legal documentation and opinions.
We went through a rough year in 2011. I was pregnant and on bed rest for a month and assured that my baby would not survive. My 16 month old son lived with his grandparents for that time while my husband ferried between me and him, and home on occasion. My daughter was born prematurely at 26 weeks gestation and suffered a terrible infection which very nearly claimed her life, and resulted in a prolonged use of oxygen therapy. During the 5 months she was in hospital, my son was again ferried from grandparents to kindly friends and neighbours. When Lucy came home she still required oxygen and had literally dozens of appointments a week for some time. Life didn’t return to normal until well into 2012 when my daughter was given the tentative ‘all clear’ and my son was finally allowed to go to day care.
I have always known he was different to other kids. He was never a kid who could sit still, never one to be quiet in cafes or walk sensibly in shopping centres. I was always the mum chasing after him, yelling at him to stop and praying he didn’t get hit by a car. He was always the one starting playground disputes, usually through sheer enthusiasm. ‘Sparkle’ my Aunty calls it. He has it in spades and its the very best and most challenging thing about him.
Three months into his first year at pre school, (he was 2 and a bit), the teachers asked me to come in and see them. They used a lot of very kind, gentle and understanding phrases, but the gist of it was he wasn’t coping socially and they couldn’t figure out what was triggering his physical behaviour. They were worried it might start affecting his friendships and wanted my permission to get outside help, and while it hurt me at the time to admit it I welcomed the support. I was still very vulnerable after the past year, and I knew there was a chance the experience would have impacted Lachie. But I had to be wholly open to the idea of support if I was to make any ground in changing his behavioural patterns, and I knew deep in my core that it was what was best for him.
The supporting psychologist the pre school had consult with us was amazing. The very first thing she said to me after observing him was that he was a great kid and she had loved spending the day with him. She said things in a way which made it seem like it was obvious – like I should have thought of it before. It just made sense. It gave me perspective. And we jumped in to employing her strategies with gusto, knowing that the earlier we begin to teach him how to regulate his own behaviour, the better off he would be in the long run.
This came at a time when Lachie was obsessed with building train tracks. He had built up quite a collection over his Christmas and Birthdays and we used trains and track pieces as a reward for great behaviour. His tracks were elaborate, often involving several types of lines for different types of engines – steamies, diesels and narrow gauge for example. They all had a story and a personality, and each piece of track had purpose. It was his own little world, and the source of his biggest trigger at pre school, because the other kids, (quite understandably) had their own ideas. He hadn’t yet learned to accept the ideas of other kids or regulate his feelings of disappointment and excitement. So the teachers decided to take the trains away for a few weeks. There were plenty of other toys and they used the time to teach Lachie how to tell them when he was feeling over excited or needed a break from the other kids. To self regulate. It’s one of his biggest strengths now, that he can communicate how he feels and regulate the way he relates to other children.
After a few weeks, they started rewarding him for great behaviour. If he was feeling like he needed a time out before he got into trouble they would let him sit in the office and play with a few trains. He took ten minutes or so away from the playground, where the opportunity for over stimulation is infinite, and sat on the office floor with the teacher on office duty playing with a few of the trains.
I want to take this opportunity to say that the Pre School were exceptional in the way they handled my son right from the beginning. He developed quite a fondness for the teacher who happened to be on office duty on his days and even a few months before graduating would go and see her for a sit down and a chat when he needed a break from the playground.
However, not everyone was so understanding. One of the mothers happened upon my son in the office one day and mentioned it to another mum. Over the next few months rumours began to swirl. A few of the mums relayed some of the things that were said about my son and initially I was enraged.
“Why is Lachie locked in the office?
“Is it really in his best interests to be shut in there by himself?”
“I don’t think this is good for his welfare.”
“Is he going to hurt my child?”
“Should he be going to our pre school?”
At first I couldn’t see past my own protective instincts. How dare they pick on a two and a half year old child? How could they speak this way about my sweet child who has the biggest heart of anyone I’d ever known? Why did they not bother to get to know the kid, instead of instantly making a judgement about the way I parent him, the way the teachers support him, about his very being?
After a week or two of stewing I realised he had no idea about the rumours that were gradually escalating about him. He was completely oblivious and immersed in his own world, as two year olds are, and had plenty of friends at school. It was unpleasant for me to smile at these few mothers and say hello at pick up and drop off, but I had friends there too. Most mums, like most kids, are actually pretty fantastic people.
So I let it go.
Because no one at the pre school really knew what had been going on in our lives. No one knew the tumultuous, often torturous, sometimes completely numbing existence we had been living for the better part of a year. No one knew that my tiny little boy had been through so much in such a short life. No one knew we were vulnerable to the point of being raw. And none of the other mums, (not even the ones I was close with), knew about the trains in the office deal with the teachers. It just didn’t seem relevant, nor did it seem like anyone else’s business.
I get that a mother came upon an unusual situation. I understand it may have seemed extreme or odd to her. I can sympathise with wanting to make sure her child was well cared for at pre school. But here is what this experience taught me as a mother. I don’t know what’s going on with other kids. I don’t know if there are family situations that are being taken into account, or diagnostic issues at play. I don’t know if there are medical concerns. What I know is that behaviour, no matter how drastic, is never the ‘fault’ of a two year old. They are learning and we need to give them space to do that. How they are parented is up to the parents, and is not a subject that should be up for discussion or judgement.
I have since seen parents struggle with issues with their child. With being called into school or pre school, with not knowing how to cope with a particular nuance. I’ve seen the devastated look of failure in their eyes and I have recognised it as an expression I have worn myself. So I refuse – point blank – to judge them for it. I will never complain about a parent who’s child is a biter. I will never whinge about the kid that is distracting the class in school. Because I don’t know the situation and it’s just none of my business. In the meantime I’ll work on helping my two little superheroes be as completely awesome as they are destined to be. I’ll spend my time as a parent solely devoted to soaking them up. In ten years time, my kids will not remember these experiences but I doubt I’ll ever forget the way it felt when a few bored mothers decided to judge my child.