Lately I’ve been writing and talking a lot about choosing compassion over judgment when we see people having a hard time with their kids or parenting in ways we don’t agree with or that bother us in some way. I truly believe that offering kindness instead of turning away or criticizing is how we make each other stronger. Connection is like a beam of hope when we feel defeated by parenthood with its tsunami of tasks, stresses and emotions.
But what happens when compassion isn’t your first reaction?
For me, it happened a few weeks ago during Lilah’s first ballet class. We moms sat in the waiting area chatting about dropped naps and Halloween costumes, vaguely watching our three- and four-year-olds through the glass wall as they slipped and skipped across the wooden floor.
As a fresh crop of parents and kids trickled in for the next class, I heard a fit of giggling behind me, then a strained “Come here!” It sounded like the usual corralling of young children that goes on before a class: put on your tutu, slip on the slippers, let’s put your hair in a ponytail. I turned to see a woman dashing after her six- or seven-year-old daughter as she dodged and skittered, laughing.
In a flash, the woman grabbed the girl and backed her up against the wall. She leaned down into her face: “You listen when I tell you to do something! You cannot behave that way in public!” Then she swiftly slapped her daughter across the face.
I gasped. The three other moms near me briefly fell silent, then continued chatting as though nothing unusual had happened. My cheeks burned. My heart thumped. Over the next few seconds, I felt shock, panic, concern, anger and then, yes, judgment. I wanted to say something, but couldn’t gather my thoughts. A few minutes later, Lilah came running out of her class and into my arms.
How do you find compassion when you see another parent acting in a way so completely contrary to your way of parenting?
I mulled over this for weeks. On the one hand, I absolutely do not believe it’s okay to hit a child – not as a form of punishment, not as a form of discipline; not in public, not in private. On the other, I know how hard motherhood can be, how suddenly you can snap. I wondered if, like most of us, what this mom needed was a little extra support. Maybe then slapping her child wouldn’t be an option. Yes, but could I really offer understanding to a mom who hits her child?
The next few ballet classes I studiously avoided her, feeling uncomfortable and unable to reconcile my judgment with compassion. Then last week, without much of a plan, I settled myself in a chair not far from where she and her daughter like to sit. They showed up as usual and the mom started going through the girl’s lunchbox. She commented on every piece of left over food, asking why she didn’t eat it. She became agitated when she discovered that one of the lids to a plastic Tupperware container was missing, grilling her daughter as to where she left it. Finally, she handed her daughter her dance outfit and tersely told her to go to the changing room.
I decided to dig deep and let compassion do its thing. “That’s great that she can change on her own,” I blurted.
The woman glanced up, a little startled. “Yeah, well, we’ll see how quickly she comes back,” she replied. “She’s such a little…stinker,” she said, finally, forcing a smile.
“They all are sometimes,” I offered as Lilah twirled around between us in her tutu, pulling on it to make it flutter and flip.
“Oh sweetie,” said the mom. “Don’t yank on your skirt like that. You’ll rip it.”
Lilah stopped twirling and looked at me, confused. “It’s okay,” I said to Lilah. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I was totally annoyed at this woman for chiding my daughter. Still, I shoved the feeling aside, looked up at the woman and smiled at her real big. It took her a second, but she smiled back, this time with a little more ease.
I’m not naïve enough to think I can change a person with a few kind words or magic away the chaos of motherhood with a smile, but I have to believe that even small gestures make a difference. This woman and I, we don’t have to be friends – in fact, I’m pretty sure we won’t be – but I can throw her a rope to grab hold of, from one mom to another, and hope she backs away from the edge of out-of-control next time she’s angry with her child.