Yesterday evening, Jason came home while I was giving Jack a bath. I was just letting the water out of the tub, when Jack took a handful of bath paints and smeared red all over his ear. As I tried to rinse the soapy paint off before all the water drained out, Jack darted gleefully around the tub, shouting "game, game!" He is ecstatic about anything you can call a "game." We were having fun. I was laughing and telling him, "be still!" Then, Jason walks into the bathroom as I'm saying, "If you don't be still, I'm gonna dunk your head under water!" He gave me an odd look and said, "Um, did you just threaten to drown our child?"
What I meant of course was that I would dunk his ear in the water to get the paint off. Jason was not really alarmed and was more teasing me than anything, but I realized it sounded pretty bad out of context. I fumbled, saying, "No, I meant to get the paint out of his ear. We were playing..."
It's a silly example, but it'll make you think twice about judging other parents in public. When you hear a mom snap at her 2-year-old in the grocery store and observe the little one bursting into tears, it's easy to make that mom into a short-fused tyrant... unless you know that the little angel tossed a glass jar of pickles out of the cart on aisle 4, whined for sugar cereal all the way down aisles 5 and 6 and decided to shriek at the top of her lungs for the entirety of aisles 7-9 for no apparent reason. I'm not saying it is or isn't okay to snap at a child, but if you know the history, you can at least understand where the parent is coming from. Bottom line: short of actual abuse, you can't judge what another parent does in public, especially without knowing their children, their family dynamics and what their day, thus far, has been like. Maybe that kid you see eating a giant chocolate bar for lunch at the park gets them all the time and has no idea what a vegetable is, but maybe it's a big big treat he gets a couple times a year as a break from his otherwise stellar nutrition. As someone (possibly someone in my family) once said, "You just cain't never tell."
It swings the other way, too, though. Maybe you hear about another parent taking her children on a nature walk every Saturday, where they discuss the local flora and fauna along the way and end in a lovely picnic of whole wheat sprout-and-avocado pita sandwiches. You think about your own children, glued to Dora the Explorer most Saturdays and feel a pang of guilt. But don't forget how you haul them around all week long, to the pool, to the children's museum, on walks, play dates, whatever and realize you all deserve a little at-home down time. Besides, the nature walk pita parent probably feeds her kids chicken nuggets for dinner Saturday night and then doesn't see them most of the week, 'cause she's at work. I'm not saying you're better than her, it's just that we all have our admirable points in different places. And it's unnecessarily distressing if you leap to the conclusion that another parent is doing a better job than you are, that you somehow fall short, just because of one event.
I guess I'm finally taking to heart the thing you hear all your life, from your parents, teachers, and motivational speakers: Don't worry about what everyone else is doing. Find your own path. Because that's what parenting, and life in fact, is about: finding your own unique path that won't look exactly like anyone else's and may in places look radically different than anyone else you know. Life is a lot easier when we learn to let go of judging other people, judging ourselves and worrying that we somehow don't measure up to some imaginary universal standard. We make mistakes, we fall down, we get up, but only in relevance to ourselves. The measuring stick isn't everyone else or society; it's our own happiness and state of bliss (or un-bliss at times.) So I guess the answer to the time-honored question - one I have heard and even spoken many times throughout life - "If so-and-so jumped off a cliff, would you too?" is, "No, I wouldn't; I intend to jump off another cliff entirely."