As I walked into the YMCA nursery a few days ago, they were impossible to ignore.
“AYYYAAAAAAHHHH!” a five-year-old boy screamed, flinging himself at his two-year-old brother.
“AIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” his brother responded in a key that could shatter glass, flapping ineffectually back at the older boy before falling to the floor in a kicking, screaming fury. On the screeching and squawking and screaming and punching and tantrumming went. My eyes traveled slowly from the boys up to their mother, a perfectly toned, dyed blonde who was pointedly ignoring them and everyone else. Hmm. The last time I saw her was right after learning that her older son had pushed my three-year-old daughter in the nursery. After hearing what had happened, she had said and done nothing.
This time around she paused for a moment, then gently shoved her older son into the big kids’ room and shut the door. Next, she turned to her sobbing younger son. Picking up the boy gingerly under his armpits, she walked across the nursery lobby, stepped over the dividing gate into the toddler room, and dropped him on his butt on a stack of play mats. The kid promptly fell backward and flipped heels over head onto his stomach. He began screaming at the top of his lungs. The nursery workers stared, aghast. On the other side of the dividing wall in the baby room, Bruiser’s eyes widened and he began crying, too. I tried to comfort him and watched to see what the gym mom would do next. She smiled blandly at the nursery worker.
“He’ll be fine,” she said over her son’s plaintive screams. And … she left. Her son ran to the dividing wall and watched her go, tears streaming down his face.
“Well, they say the best thing to do is leave them alone, I guess …” the nursery worker said dubiously, looking at the boy. Two other moms came over and tried to talk to him. He cried louder. I calmed Bruiser down and gave him to a nursery worker before heading out into the gym. As fate would have it, the only open elliptical was next to Gym Mom. I got on it. We didn’t speak.
As we, erm, ellipticized side by side, I tried to have empathy for her. I tried to put myself in her shoes. I tried to tell myself that she needed a break, and that an hour at the Y might be the only break she could get from her hellions all day long. I tried to be understanding. I tried to feel sympathy. I tried to feel pity. I tried y’all, I swear I did.
But I couldn’t.
Maybe it was that bland smile she wears throughout the chaos. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m just well enough acquainted with her to know that she could easily afford to hire a private sitter to watch her children rather than foisting them off onto overworked nursery employees and putting other kids at risk. The thing is, if she had seemed frazzled, apologetic, or in desperate need of an hour to herself, I think I would have felt at least a pang of pity. But the “eat shit” grin she always wore got to me, particularly when I saw it after learning that her son had pushed my daughter. It pissed me off.
“I have a right, too, you know” I wanted to tell her. “I have a right to bring my kid to the nursery and not worry that your kid is going to hurt her. And what about the nursery workers? They have fifteen other kids to watch, including mine! It’s not fair to make them spend the entire time refereeing your older son and talking your younger one down from a tantrum!”
I tell you this not to send you into a cold, finger-pointing fury, but because this is a dilemma that I’m sure lots of you have dealt with on one end of things or another. I think of my friend who teaches Sunday School. For a while, a boy was put in her class who was so out-of-control that she literally couldn’t teach the lesson if he showed up. Instead, she spent the entire time trying to placate him and keep him from hurting himself or someone else. His parents acted completely oblivious and since she was simply volunteering her time, she didn’t feel comfortable confronting them. Most of us wouldn’t. I’d never in a million years say something directly to Gym Mom, unless I were to catch her son in the act doing something to my daughter, and even then, I’d have a hard time with it. After all, it’s un-P.C. to confront another parent. It’s sort of trashy.
But where do we draw the line? What is our responsibility to our children? What’s our responsibility to the children of others? Most of us have a hands-off philosophy when it comes to other kids, right? Walk a mile in their parents’ shoes first, we say with a deeply tolerant air. But we also like to say that it takes a village to raise a child. So shouldn’t we be stepping in more? After my first encounter with Gym Mom, some of you got so angry that I said loudly in front of her older son that we should never hit or push anyone. I may have embarrassed him! A few of you chided me. But aren’t we doing society a disservice if we stand around acting like bad behavior is normal, for fear that we might offend someone? To me, the smile on Gym Mom’s face was the smile of a woman who knows her kids can damn well do what they please and no one will stop them.
Most of the time.
Ten minutes into my deep thoughts, one of the nursery workers walked up to our machines. She looked up at Gym Mom and waited for her to take out her earbuds.
“Is it that bad?” Gym Mom asked witheringly. The worker nodded. Gym Mom left and didn’t come back.
I don’t see this situation resolving itself any time soon. I’m sure I’ll deal with Gym Mom again at the Y, either directly or indirectly, and I’m equally sure that she’s only the first in a long line of parents I encounter who give their kids free rein to do whatever the hell they want—even if it negatively affects other kids or takes undue amounts of time from teachers and caregivers. How do you respond to parents like this? How should I? I want to be sympathetic. I don’t want to be a pushover who’s afraid to “make a fuss” by standing up for my children.