A refresher in compassion
My son’s first “Ninja Warrior” class was a bit disorganized, with energetic preschoolers running amok. Truth be told, it was absolute chaos, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the two program leaders went for a stiff drink afterwards. I wanted to, and I was just watching!
One child in particular was having a really hard time sticking with the group—he disregarded instructions and ran around doing whatever he wanted, including whipping a large ball dangerously close to my son’s head. His mom just sat there. The one or two times she did intervene seemed unassertive and ineffective. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she brought her son out of the play area to sit next to her on the bench for the rest of the class.
My husband and I gave each other “the look” and inwardly congratulated ourselves on how our son had cooperated so well in the midst of so much misbehavior. However, on the way home I started to feel ashamed of myself for my smugness. I remembered the many occasions on which I have felt like there is a huge spotlight on me while my son loudly expresses his strong opinions, argues, or has a meltdown in a public place.
I started wondering about all of the circumstances that might have contributed to the behaviour of the boy who was acting out and his mother’s apparent lack of response. Maybe he resists an assertive style of direction, maybe he is on the autism spectrum, maybe he was expressing anxiety and his mom knew she had to be gentle with him—the maybes could go on forever. Unless we are that parent, we don’t know the whole story.
I’m usually an empathetic and compassionate person, so it upset me to see how easily I could slip into judging another parent, who, like me, is probably doing the best she can. It could just as easily have been my son going wild with all the gym equipment, and I know how deeply embarrassed I would have felt.
It rattled me so much that I did some research. It turns out, these judgments—“attributions”—we make about others are part of how we navigate the world. Our brain uses two types of attributions in order to explain people’s behaviour: situational and personality.
Making a situational attribution means that you consider the contributing factors. For example, if someone is consistently late you might consider that they are a single parent juggling a lot of extra responsibility, or if someone doesn’t return your greeting, it could be that they are caught up in their own thoughts, or that they didn’t hear you because their hearing aids aren’t working. It requires extra thought and empathy to consider situational factors.
Conversely, personality attributions are quicker ways to explain people’s behaviour, requiring less energy and depth of thought. This is when you make a “snap” judgment about someone’s fixed traits (for example, that person is always late because they are inconsiderate). These are the most common types of judgements we make about others, particularly strangers. They make sense from a survival perspective (that person is really loud and looks threatening = they must be dangerous and I will keep my distance); however, using this protective, instinctual response all the time drastically limits our ability for connection and understanding. As Mother Teresa said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
Criticism of others also often springs from our own insecurity—when we judge others and find them wanting, our egos feel better. Honestly, I was terrified my son would not handle the new low-structure situation as well as he did and that this would cause others to judge me. When someone else’s kid went rogue, it made me feel (temporarily) better about my own parenting skill.
Now, when I feel the urge to make a personality judgment, I look inward and try to pinpoint how I’m feeling. Then I think of something positive about my parenting. I also make a point of noticing great things that other parents do, rather than jumping to negative assessments of their character and ability.
So to any mama, any parent, feeling judged as you try to wrangle your wayward child, I would like to say: you’ve got this! Anyone making you feel like a subpar parent is probably (if they are honest) feeling like a bit of a failure themselves. And let’s be gentle with each other. This is a rough gig at times, and the support of community goes a long way.