One day this week, as my children and I sat on the subway platform waiting for a train, my son asked for a snack. I hadn’t packed anything. We had just had lunch at home before leaving, and we were going to Trader Joe’s for groceries. Given that my son and I usually snack our way through most grocery shopping trips, I didn’t think I would need snacks. I said all this to my son. He asked for a snack again. Later in the week, I would realize that he was in the midst of the kind of growth spurt that demands constant food and sleep, but in the moment, all I could do was rummage through my bag for any left behind or forgotten snacks.
To his delight, I found a package of seaweed. I opened it up for him. He sat on the bench contentedly eating his snack, and we waited for the train.
Then, just as he neared the end of his seaweed, he dropped the tray on the ground. He hopped off the bench, bent down, picked up the remaining seaweed, stacked it neatly in the tray, and got back on the bench to finish eating it. As he did this, I felt the eyes of all my fellow passengers watch him – and me – for what he would do, and if I would let him eat it. Because I have been criticized more than once and had more than one finger shaken at me for exposing my child to germs and potential plague when he drops a cracker on the ground. I know that while I think my son is adorable picking up after himself in public, no one will compliment him on being a responsible 3 year old and for not littering our public spaces.
So I knew it was coming before the woman even opened her mouth.
“Are you sure you want your child to eat that, after he dropped it on the ground?”
I gave her my standard canned response of how we spent a year traveling around SE Asia and if she wanted to scare me about the potential health threats of a New York City subway platform, she was going to have to work a little harder. I threw in – as I often do – how even his US doctor says that in terms of my son’s health and immune system, there is nothing better that we could have done for him than take him traveling around the world.
She didn’t say anything for about a minute.
“Listen, it’s not my place to criticize and I’m a parent too, but it’s not about the germs. It’s about the toxins, the lead people track on their shoes, the rats and the rat poison they scatter in the stations. It’s about limiting exposure since toxins accumulate over time and can cause long term health issues.”
I told her I understood, and I appreciated her concern. I told her I was well aware of environmental toxins and health risks and the repercussions of accumulated levels of toxins over time. I told her we made very conscious choices about the food we ate, the water we drank, the products we used on our bodies, the products we cleaned our home with and limiting plastics within our home. I told her precisely how long my son was breastfed. I also told her precisely how well read, researched and educated I was. Which was when I realized that I sounded like a bitch even to my own ears.
And while I’m rarely at a loss for what to say, it is true that in the moment of a confrontation, I don’t think of what I actually want to say until much later. In this case, it was all of fifteen minutes before I realized that I was just trying to say that my husband and I make very conscious choices, so that when my son eats the three sheets of seaweed he dropped on the subway platform, I don’t have to panic about his potential toxin exposure. I was trying to say that I want my family to live consciously, but to also live our lives. I don’t want to live my life from a place of fear of what might happen when. Nor do I want to tell my hungry child that he may be holding food, but he cannot now eat it.
Though I had to admit, she had me on the lead and the rat poison. I haven’t spent much time thinking about the lead people track on their shoes or the rat poison that they use in the subways.
The interaction left me in a tangle. It’s easy to feel judged and criticized, especially given her delivery, even if she was well intentioned. But I have to admit that I admired her for speaking up for what she believed in; that while I may have thought there are millions of parents far more worthy of her tirade, she did speak up out of concern for my son’s health and well-being.
On the one hand, we want to be tolerant of other people and that they do things differently. The world is a diverse place and people raise their children in a variety of ways. Most of us want the same things for our children – that they be happy, healthy, well educated, successful and productive people whom we enjoy being around. And there is more than one way to nurture the growth of children. Yet, accepting differences can sometimes slip towards complacency. It’s easy to not have the difficult conversations when you’re “being accepting.” Most the time we can assume how people raise their children or how they are with their children is none of our business, and there are times when speaking up or intervening in someone’s child rearing habits can save a child’s life.
This woman also had a very valid point; one I hadn’t even been aware of. And I had to admit even to myself that my defensive reaction actually had very little to do with her and more to do with the fact that a stranger criticizing my children or my parenting is not a rare occurrence. Many people do stop to tell me how beautiful and aware my 7 month old daughter is or that my son is very considerate wanting “to help” and hold the door open for them. But even more people tell me that my son might get hurt on the tall slide or that if I let my son walk up to ten feet in front of me, I’m guilty of negligence, or my son shouldn’t be out with me, but should be in school instead. If my son breathes on the window of a subway to watch it fog up? As if no other child on the planet has done such a thing and survived? It’s a matter of seconds before the plague warnings start coming my way. On this particular outing to Trader Joe’s alone, I would also be told to buckle my son into his stroller and that my daughter wasn’t wearing enough clothes (It was 45 degrees. She was wearing her hat and boiled wool jacket.). I get told so often by a stranger that I am doing something wrong with my children, that by the time this woman sat next to me on the subway platform, I just wanted to make the stop sign with my hand and say, “I don’t even want to hear it.”
I read a lot of parenting books, but I haven’t read the book from the Tiger Mom or the book about French parenting because I don’t need anyone else telling me that other people are better parents. Parents are so inundated with opinions of other people or thoughtless criticisms that when we do hear something that we might actually need, we’re so worn out from feeling criticized, we don’t actually hear it. Thoughtless criticism becomes noise like snow on an old TV set. It gets in the way of us trusting ourselves as parents and trusting our children. It gets in the way of us following our instincts because it causes us to doubt our values and our selves.
On the walk home from the subway stop, we came across a mother pushing her almost three year-old son in his stroller. He had gorgeous curly hair long enough to blow in the breeze and a big smile on his face. He wore a thin jacket and no shoes. I laughed at the glorious sight of his bare feet in the late afternoon sun. Then I asked his mother, “How often do you get criticized for his bare feet?”
“All the time,” she said. “Then when he actually wears shoes, I get criticized because he’s not wearing mittens, and I just want to shout, ‘But he’s wearing shoes!’”
Which is the detail that is often forgotten: our children are children, and just because they are smaller than us, we can’t make them do something they don’t want to, not when we’re trying to teach them to be accepting and the best way to do that is to accept them and the way they experience the world.
My son pointed to the boy’s feet. He shouted, “He’s not wearing any shoes!”
“No, he’s not,” I said. “Isn’t it fantastic?”