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A Plea for Empathy: It’s Easy to Judge Other People’s Parenting from Afar

I was that lady who always judged parents. My kids were going to be different. I was going to parent using my full DNA arsenal of structure and organization, producing perfectly polite people.

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In fact, I clearly remember standing in a grocery store line behind a sticky-fingered child who wanted me to make goo-goo eyes at him. He was clutching his lollipop and screaming for more candy while his weakling of a mom fed him gummie bears like dog treats. That will never be me, I silently resolved to my nine-month pregnant self.

And then the baby came out.

Those childless few who are judging parents have their hearts in the right place. We moms, however, have to contend with a traveling mom heart that flits from person to person like a butterfly in a garden.

More Empathy and Less Judgment

The unruly food court kid may have just discovered his parents were divorcing—or he was teased about his girth in front of his main squeeze.

That micro-short wearing pre-teen girl is stumbling toward adulthood and trying on a few identities along the way.

Those of us with children find it easier to insert their own kid into a misbehaving one and imagine backstories. Just as it’s also easier to insert ourselves into the place of a struggling mom at a restaurant while her toddler throws spaghetti.

We have walked that path ourselves. Unlike my childless days, I refuse to judge parents and children on these snapshot moments.

All of us come with backstories—adults and kids alike. Kids, however, are dealing with brains that are still cooking, right up until their early 20s. And I make it a habit not to expect perfection from things that are still developing. Like fine wine. And symphonies.

Backstories, people. Backstories.

More Aware that the World Has Changed

Another mind trick I quickly discarded after giving birth was measuring today’s standards against our youth, a.k.a. the ‘’in my day” stories. Parents today are playing on a completely different field than yesterday, and expecting the same is akin to asking LeBron James to make a layup on AstoTurf.

Oh, how I often wish for the neighborhoods of our youth, when times were simpler and less chaotic. I wish our kids’ real need for independence could be met at many more places that didn’t occasionally include shopping. (Which they quickly outgrew, by the way.)

Although statistically safer than we have ever been, I wish we didn’t have to parent around 24/7 media and the internet which make too many people too anxious. And I wish my teens would sometimes want to be my movie date, instead of exercising their age-appropriate needs as they grow up and away, eventually becoming contributing members of society to satisfy even the childless among us.

More Willing to Learn the Backstories

Mostly, I wish those who judge would pull up a chair the next time they see a group of loud, frozen-yogurt consuming teens and learn their backstories. Or visit a school. Most teens today are nothing short of magnificent and it gives me great hope for the future when I spend more than a few hours with several. They are kind and good and creative. They’re using not only traditional artistic mediums, but those that involve crayons being replaced with computers.

Once upon a time, a man passively sat on a subway train while his unruly kids ran rampant. Strangers rolled their eyes at each other until one finally approached the man and reprimanded him. “I’m sorry,” he answered. “We’re coming from the hospital and their mother just passed away. I’m doing the best I can.”


I wish those who decide on solutions for strangers would consider that solutions are best crafted by gathering information, minus assumptions.

This requires empathy. And empathy is best cultivated when you’ve lived the experience yourself.

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I was that lady. But my awesome, exasperating, kind, imperfect children gave me a traveling mom heart and made me soft. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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