My four year old takes swimming lessons on Saturday which means my husband or I have to sit with the other parents on the bleachers and hang out for half an hour while our kids squeal and flail around in the pool. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I watch the squealing and the flailing. Sometimes I make small talk.
Usually I don’t initiate small talk because with small talk you have to be very polite and polite, when taken too far, can rapidly degenerate into boring.
“Oh, can you believe it’s raining in June?” Yes. We live in Seattle. We call it “Junuary” here for a reason. Also I have a new book on my Kindle that is way more interesting to me than awkwardly trading obvious statements with you. But I don’t want my kid to get a reputation as That Kid Whose Mom is an Asshole so I guess I’ll respond with a smile and an “I know, right? I’m really looking forward to those two weeks in late July where it will most likely be consistently sunny.”
Today’s bout of small talk was with a mother of another four year old. She was very nice. Very polite. I hope I was too. We tried our best to make interesting conversation about our respective kids. She told me about her plans for her son’s birthday party. I told her that I didn’t do a proper party for my daughter this year but feel like I probably should have since we’ve been to some really cute, fun kids’ parties. She said, “Don’t worry. There is no right way or wrong way.”
She shared her concerns about putting a trampoline in her yard. I paraphrased but essentially I said, “Don’t worry. There is no right way or wrong way.”
And it was like that with *everything.* Delaying vaccination? No right way or wrong way. Age to start kindergarten for August birthday kids? No right or wrong age. Swimming proficiency level to force your child to attain in order to take care of the ‘here’s how to avoid drowning’ aspect of swimming? No right or wrong answer.
It was a pretty vapid conversation. Not that I’m advocating loudly and vehemently giving unsolicited advice to random pool side parents or otherwise discussing controversial opinions and topics when it’s clear that that’s not what the other person wants to do. I’m not big on being rude or creating unnecessary awkwardness. There was pretty much no other way for that conversation to go. I didn’t know her. She didn’t know me. We both seemed like reasonable, caring people who would make the best party / trampoline / vaccination / kindergarten / swimming decisions for our particular set of circumstances.
It was good as far as small talk goes. But I don’t think either of us put a lot of thought into anything or came away with new information or a new perspective.
But the conversation got me thinking about the idea that there is no right or wrong way to parent and how we all should support each other’s choices.
I’m not supportive of random judging of other individuals when you don’t know their specific circumstances. (For example, see a helicopter mom at the park? Before you give an inner eye roll consider that she might be dealing with an anxiety disorder.) And I’m not supportive of “Mommy Wars” type cattiness.
But I am supportive of some types of macro-level judging.
Because for a lot of things there *is* a right way or a wrong way.
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious which is the right way and which is the wrong way. For instance, driving around with an infant in a properly installed rear facing infant carseat? Good idea. Loosely strapping an infant into a forward facing carseat affixed to your front seat with duct tape? Bad idea.
Sometimes which way is right is less obvious or even debatable. When carseats first came out, for instance, there was debate about their efficacy and relative importance.
Now carseats are widely acknowledged as important. It’s not a “we’ll make whatever decision is best for our family. There is no right way or wrong way” type of issue anymore. If you have a kid, you put them in a carseat. If you don’t do that, you’re doing it wrong. Period.
Experts didn’t just issue a press release saying, “Hey parents – Scientists and doctors say carseats are a good idea. So use them.” and everyone was like, “Okay. We’ll get right on that.” Regular people had a larger conversation about carseats involving macro-scale judging. People shared information, ideas, and opinions. They talked about whether they thought carseats were good for kids or not. The argument for carseats was more compelling than the “I didn’t have a carseat and I’m not dead so my kids don’t need carseats” argument so social and legal pressure to use carseats was created and carseats moved from the “different strokes” category of parenting decisions to the “obviously” category.
If the initial carseat conversation had gone on in a “Don’t worry. There is no right way or wrong way” fashion then I don’t think that would have happened or at least not as quickly. Macro-scale judging out loud in an appropriate public forum can be a very good thing.
A random poolside chat with a relative stranger who appears to have no interest in moving beyond exchanging pleasantries is probably not an appropriate public forum. But a lot of other places are. The internet, for example.
So I wish there were less of a blanket approach to judging. I hear a lot of “We should support each other and not judge. Everyone does what’s best for their family. Every family is different.” While that’s not exactly an untrue statement, it construes the idea of judging very narrowly. We shouldn’t be dicks who pick each other apart compassionlessly in an effort to find fault. But it’s beneficial to everyone when we do some non-dickish macro-level judging and share our opinions on what we think is the right way or wrong way and why.
I don’t know which specific issues we debate today will eventually move from the “different strokes” category to the “obviously” category. But they’re out there. And hopefully people are discussing and making judgments about them right now. Otherwise we’ll be left with no change for the better and boring pool side small talk.