Sunday, November 30, 2014

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Parents: Stop Judging Other Parents

Photo by Jason Taellious

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In July 2014 I published an essay titled “I blamed my wife for our messy house, I was wrong for many reasons” in the Washington Post. In it I discussed an argument my wife and I had nearly five years ago over whose responsibility it was to clean the house, and during that argument I learned that sometimes it’s best to put housework aside and take advantage of worthwhile moments with children. The essay went viral, and suddenly I was flooded with both positive and negative comments, emails, tweets, and Facebook messages.

This was my first time going viral. It was also the first time I’ve had a stranger tell me that I was a bad parent. It was the first time a stranger asked me if I had rats in my home. It was the first time a stranger judged me because I couldn’t pay for a cleaning service. None of this was said to my face, mind you. Most of it was said anonymously in the comments section, or through a Twitter handle @Mommathemost66 or @menformen, that sort of thing. With a very small glimpse into my life (about 1,000 words) many readers were very ready to make a hard judgment of my parenting as a whole.

As the negative comments came in, I thought a lot about what it means to be a parent. I thought about all the times I’d been in a store and seen a sideways glance from one parent to another, one that seemed to say, “You’re doing it wrong.” I thought about the fact that I consider myself to be a pretty good dad, and then I thought about all the other parents I’d judged for this or that, and how I was now being judged.

For some reason parents are quick to judge other parents, and the anonymity of the Internet has made it okay to tell another parent that they are doing it wrong. And you know what, I get how easy it is judge other parents. A few years ago, when I was waiting tables while attending college, a father and his two young children, probably two and four, sat down at my table just before close. I was 24, a father of a 2-year-old, and my wife was pregnant with our second. At the time, I felt confident that I understood what good parenting looked like, and the way this father handled his children seemed remarkably bad. One kid was banging the table and screaming. The other was walking around the dining room tugging at chairs and rolling them around. At one point a saltshaker was thrown at another table. I told the manager about this. And as I did, I made the statement, “Can’t this guy control his kids? Or does he just not care. It’s just ridiculous.” The manager spoke with the man. He then came back and said, “That guy just found out his wife has terminal cancer. They’ve been at the hospital all day. The doctor gave her a couple weeks. He’s a wreck. I’m buying his meal.”

Suddenly I felt like a complete asshole. For all I knew, that guy was a great father. He was probably a wonderful husband, too. But in that moment he was dealing with stresses and loss I can’t even imagine. Although I know that this is an extreme situation, I can say honestly that it helped me put things into prospective. Often times I don’t know what a parent is up against. I don’t know what is going on in their lives, and judging them isn’t fixing a thing.

In my experience, I can say that most parents are trying really hard. Most are doing a lot of things right. This is not to say that there are not truly bad parents out there. My father was one of them. He left when I was 9 years old, and he was in and out of jail most of my childhood. But he was not the norm. I would say that he was the sad exception. And I told him to his face that he was a bad father, and it didn’t change the way he acted. The only thing that could’ve changed my father was himself. He needed to looking deep inside, become reflective, and make life changes.

However, at the same time, I know how hard parenting can be, now. I know how stressful it can be trying to support a family when you are up most of the night caring for a baby or a sick child. I know the pressure of parenting now. I know how sometimes I feel like parking my mini-van full of screaming children on the side of the road and wandering into the woods, never to be seen again. In those moments, I seem to understand why my father buckled under the stress of parenting. This is not to condone the way he left, but I can say that I understand his actions better now that I am a parent.  When I told him that he was a bad father, I didn’t know much about being a father.

Here’s what I do know. My mother was single, and poor, and she had three children. She worked long hours to make ends meet, which meant that I had limited supervision, and I made a lot of poor decisions that reflected poorly on my mother’s parenting. I am sure that she was judged, and I am confident that those doing the judging didn’t know the full situation.

What I’m trying to say is this: being critical of parents after only seeing a short glimpse into their lives at a shopping center, or through an online essay, is not making change. There is always more to the story, and granting others the benefit of the doubt is the truly human thing to do, because frankly the only person that truly knows enough about a parent’s situation to be critical are the parents.

Although I struggle with it, I’m trying to change my mindset and be more critical of my own parenting than I am of others, because frankly, my story is the only one I know well enough to criticize. We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and we are all struggling as parents, and anyone raising kids knows how stressful it can be.

When I go to the mall and see someone’s kid acting inappropriately, I think about the last time I was really stressed out and managed to make it all the way to the store without putting shoes on my daughter, and rather than go back home, I said “to hell with it,” and went shopping anyways. When I go to the park and a kid is throwing rocks and no parent is stopping him, I think about the time I turned my back to help my son on the monkey bars, and my daughter started rooting through the park garbage can. I think about my own situation, how I have the power to change it, and figure out how I can make things better next time. Because you know what, parenting is about trial and error, and being critical of other parents isn’t going to change a thing. But being critical of my own parenting can make a difference, and frankly it’s a much better use of my time.  

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter