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Between the preschool, Brandeis, and various sporting leagues I have a chance to observe a lot of other parenting. Sometimes I get ideas from peers: I’ll never forget the day I watched Caroline’s dad effortlessly redirect Caroline and Simon when they were about 3 years old and realized I was making things harder than necessary for myself and Simon. Sometimes I absolutely cringe: At open house this year, I watched a parent consistently berate a child in a way that made me want to flee the room.  Almost always–whether I should or not–I judge.

What are the advantages, I wonder, of having a calm parent who can correct/redirect/cope so well without getting punitive or loud? They must be huge. What kind of damage is done, I also wonder, by having a parent who is always, always on your case? Can we put all the parents who never reprimand their kids in a transmogrifier machine with all the parents who never say a kind a word and arrive at some kind of happy medium? If only.

(If transmogrifiers existed, I’d want to put Simon and Ben in, select the “fearlessness” dial, and average them out on that score. Maybe Simon could be less timid and Ben less prone to injury!)

Anyway, I’ve blogged about watching and judging other parents before. Many times. Now I can see that Simon is getting into the game, and that puts me in a tricky spot.

For example, we recently attended a sporting event (I’ll say no more) with friends. Simon was having a great day at said sport. One of the friends was off. As the game/play continued, this friend’s parent began to coach: “Do this! Do that!” Then question: “What are you doing? Why did you do that?” Then despair: “I don’t know how to help you. You aren’t listening today.” Then admonish: “What’s wrong with you today? I can’t do anything with you.”

Honestly, it was pretty painful. I know that my own approach leans heavily towards the much maligned American school of positive reinforcement and over-abundance of self-esteem, but this was surely too far in the other direction. The other child smiled through most of it. And yet, the smile seemed off, like an embarrassed smile rather than a happy one. Or maybe that’s just me projecting because I was miserable and felt terrible for the child.

I kept watching for signs of distress in Simon and didn’t see any. However, the second we got into the car, the questions began.

“Why did _____’s  Mom/Dad keep yelling like that?”

I did not have a great answer.

“Well, honey, some families are just like that. Different houses have different ways of talking to each other. In our house, we don’t yell like that because it makes all of us feel bad. But some other people aren’t as sensitive. ____ seemed OK. But I’ll be honest with you, it made me feel bad and I wished ____ wouldn’t have yelled, either.”

I could have handled that better. Unfortunately, I had a chance for a redo a few days ago. Simon was talking about a classmate who struggles to behave and keep up with the class. I asked how the child was doing, and Simon said this:

“Oh, Mama. _____ is unteachable. I see his [parent] all the time and [he/she] is always yelling at him, too.”

This made my heart sink. But the example was extreme enough that I had a ready response, too.

“Oh Simon, don’t say or think that. Everyone is teachable. It’s easier for some to learn than others. It’s easier for some to pay attention and behave than others. And every school isn’t the right match for every student. But ____ can learn. And I’m sorry that ____’s Mom/Dad is always yelling. Because if you hear you can’t do something often enough, you start to believe it. Everyone deserves a chance to succeed, and everyone deserves parents and teachers who think you can succeed. Let’s talk about what _____ is good at.”

This might be the first time that Simon heard me flat-out state that I think another parent is doing something the wrong way. It’s a fine, fine line to teach him how to trust his own instincts and stick to his principles while not getting into trouble for disrespecting parents and authority figures. Now that Simon is old enough to have his own ideas about right and wrong, I sense that we’ll be walking this line more often. It’s going to be a fascinating, difficult, and important adventure.

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