I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve appreciated strangers telling me what to do with my children. That one time was last year, when I was 38 weeks pregnant and Manchild 1 had fallen a few feet from a wall at the nearby playground. Everybody in the park gathered around as I tried to console him. Some told me to take him to the doctor right away, others told me about what they had done when their kid had fallen. Within a few minutes they had dispersed, but one man sat on the bench with me while I held M1 for a long time and tried to get him to stop crying. The man watched what was going on, studied the boy for several minutes, and eventually offered his opinion that he would be fine, that he seemed to be recovering from the fall already and that I didn’t need to take him to the doctor. Maybe I appreciated his opinion because it was what I wanted to hear and I agreed with him. But I like to think I appreciated it because he took the time to examine what was going on, he didn’t shout his opinion from across the street, and he seemed genuinely concerned.
I was reminded of this experience the other day when we were playing at the same playground. We’d gone there to partake of the sprinkler/splashpad. While M1 played in the water, his little brother crawled around on the asphalt. It wasn’t long before M2’s pants were soaked and he was uncomfortable in them. The asphalt wasn’t too hot or rough, so I decided to let him crawl around in his bare legs if he wanted to. Off came the pants and he crawled around without trouble or complaint. And then M1 needed help at the drinking fountain. I got up to help him a few yards away which was practically abandonment in M2’s book. He cried and took off after me, but the roughness of the asphalt slowed him down a bit. Some girls (nannies, I think) sitting at a picnic table nearby suggested that I put the baby’s pants on because the asphalt was too hot for him. I thanked them, told them his pants were wet, that he was fine, and to please let me parent my own children. This was not the first time that I’ve said as much to somebody who offered advice, but it was the first time that we were not just passing each other on the street, and so it was the first time I’ve had to deal with the fall-out.
I helped M1 get a drink, but he continued to play in the fountain. After a few minutes one of the girls turned and said, “Excuse me ma’am, but there was really no reason to be so rude. I was just trying to help.” And it was at this point that I realized that there was really no good ending in the situation for her. For my part, I could hardly care less what she thought of my parenting. She obviously had not taken time to evaluate the situation or she might have noticed that he was crying, not because of the asphalt, but because I walked away from him. My only response was to tell her that I didn’t mean to be rude, I was just a little bit tired of people telling me what to do when I had thoughtfully made a decision. She didn’t say anything after that, but I could tell that nothing had changed for her; she was still ruffled and huffy. As we left I thanked her for her concern and wished her a good day. It was as much as I could do.
Is there any good way to respond to people who offer their advice? I suppose if I had it to do over again, I would be a little less abrupt in my response to her (although at the time my hands were full and my attention divided as it was), but I also think that people who don’t take the time to figure out what is going on don’t merit the time it takes me to walk them gently through the situation. Have you had any similar experiences? How do you handle it?