Do you ever worry if your parenting is good enough?
I do. I think we all do. It would be strange not to question ourselves when the stakes are so high, when it is the most important thing we are doing. I reassure myself that other people aren’t judging me as harshly as I judge myself. Which is why I was so shocked last week, when a stranger criticised my parenting, yelling at me, and frightening my daughter, while we were walking home.
I didn’t for a second feel her behaviour was appropriate. I was, and still am, appalled. But in the face of such criticism it is hard not to question yourself, when really the only person we should be judging is the person who felt they had the right to judge me.
We don’t have a car. To move our children around this city we rely on our feet, our youngest, AJ, in a pram, although she often gets out to walk now. She is 20 months old, confident and fast, but with no ability to judge hazards. When she walks we need to walk close so we can grab her if she wanders towards the edge of a footpath. She’s little, but she’s learning.
When I collect my son from his kindy we walk along three streets, in a U shape, ending almost directly behind his kindy at our bus stop. We don’t cross any roads on this walk. Sometimes my son walks with us, chatting about his day. Sometimes he dawdles behind us, picking up sticks, or tracing letters on the signs we walk past trying to unlock their secrets. Sometimes he races ahead, a burst of energy that sees him running all the way to the bus shelter, where he sits and waits. I don’t, indeed can’t, expect him to walk with me all the time. His sister’s needs and pace varies. It is a balancing act.
He wasn’t that far ahead the other day when I saw a woman gesturing wildly at me. She was waiting at a bus shelter we walk past. She frowned as he walked past her, gesturing at me, as I trailed behind with our younger child. My son walked on, oblivious, in his own world.
As I got closer she started yelling at me, I couldn’t catch everything she was saying. Danish is my second language and I am far from fluent. I know my son is small for his age, so I told her ‘he is nearly five, and won’t walk out on the road.’
My daughter chose this moment to duck behind the glass shelter, making faces at me through the glass, a game I am usually happy to indulge. I went to collect her, as I wanted to move away from this woman and the brood of middle aged women hovering around her, beady eyes fixed on me. My daughter laughed and ran to the other end. As I made my way to collect her this woman stepped in front of me, bent down and scooped up my daughter.
This moment hangs in my memory. A breath caught in my throat. The woman, clutching her prize. My daughter, limp and shocked in her hands. Feet dangling in the air, staring at this unknown person who held her.
“No” I cried, as I snatched my daughter away “You can’t, that is my child” My daughter’s arms circled around my neck clutching me tight, “Mama” a frightened whisper in my ear.
Then this woman says these words
“You must look after your children.”
I was turning to collect my pram, I was stunned, I was angry and I stumbled into a linguistic trap of confusing whether I was telling her that I do, or I will, or I want to. All of which are true, by the way.
She screams in reply “So do it then.”
At which point I fell back on the time honoured tradition of swearing at someone as you walk away. Further confrontation would help no one. Least of all the child I held in my arms.
I’m still, days later, stunned and angry. Now, though, I’ve had time to pick apart her actions, my actions, my children’s actions. I have no regrets about the decisions I made as a parent leading up to that instance.
My daughter was at the back of a wide footpath. I was only a couple of paces behind her. There was no immediate danger. No one should pick up children without consent from the child and parent. My daughter has some stranger anxiety, which is developmentally normal for a child her age. It took weeks before she would be picked up by her Grandad when he visited. AJ would not have allowed this woman to pick her up if she had asked. I would not have allowed it if I had been asked. Therefore this woman should not have touched my child.
If we put that troubling aspect of the incident aside we are left with one of the more hotly contested topics of modern parenting: how much freedom to give your children, and how much of a right others have to interfere with that. There are some parents labelled as helicopters and others as free-range parents. The latter make the news when they are prosecuted for letting their child take a walk, or play in a playground, unattended. I don’t really agree with labelling parenting, but my own values are most closely aligned with the free-range movement. I believe children learn how to manage risk by experiencing risk.
MJ is headstrong and independent. Everything could be a battle if we let it be. He is also, in a way, fairly risk averse. He is thoughtful. So I am happy if he is relaxed, and enjoying his walk, to let him make his own decisions about how fast he walks, and whether he wants company or would rather enjoy some mental downtime.
I’m not sure, at four, how I could make him walk with me if I wanted to. Am I supposed to collar him? Am I supposed to be strong enough to hold onto him and wheel a pram? I suppose I could try. Forcing him to walk beside me, clutching his arm as he pulled and frothed at the mouth to get away. Each tug tearing at our relationship, until either it or he were broken.
Would he learn more from walking next to me? How can we teach our children to be independent if we never let them make independent choices? Would he be any safer? Or would you just perceive him to be safer?
If I make MJ stay with me, stopping when I stop, walking when I walk, he won’t have better road safety skills than he does now, when he is allowed to decide for himself when to stop and when to walk, within scenarios that are both familiar and safe.
I believe this woman reacted so harshly not because she felt my son was in any real danger, but because she felt if something did happen it would be my fault for not being closer. This is ludicrous. If a car spun out of control and mounted the pavement I cannot protect my child be being there. I am no more or less at fault if I am 50m away or 50cm.
I cannot protect my child in this world. All I can do is arm my child with the right tools to protect themselves.
I’m not parenting anyone’s idea of a child. I’m not parenting the children this woman may have raised. I’m parenting the son I have, in the best way I see how. Our relationship is a two way street. Would other parents make different decisions than us? Of course. There is no correct way to raise a child. There is an infinite array of possibilities. A complex web of events that is spun every day. Every interaction a building block that has led my son and me to the path we are on now.
This woman, she doesn’t know me, or my son. She hasn’t sat stroking his hair while he tumbles into sleep. She hasn’t listened to the funny stories he tells. She hasn’t watched him draw, tongue sticking out of his mouth with deep concentration. She’s never pretended to be interested in his lists of dinosaurs and how big they are and how many claws they have. She hasn’t lain in his bed next to him, listening as he shared his innermost fears and troubles. She hasn’t watched him carefully, pedantically, slicing cucumber to eat (yes we let him use a knife). She hasn’t watched, a smile playing at her lips, as he runs and runs and runs, arms thrown wide with joy.
She has no idea of all the wonderful, amazing things he is capable of.
I do. My husband does. We aren’t perfect, but nobody is in a better position than us to decide how much freedom and responsibility to give our children.
It is too easy to criticise people who make different choices. Too easy to see things in black and white. But trying to parent a child is a million shades of grey. So if I could go back, and muster linguistic control I would say this: I want to look after my children the best I can. I will look after my children, as I see fit. I do look after my children. You just might not agree with every decision that I make.
That’s fine. I don’t need approval. I know I’m not perfect, but I am a good enough parent.
So I won’t call my son back to me. Instead I’ll tell him to run. Throw those arms wide and run.