Strangers with Compliments

Once you become a parent, you get deluged with a lot of advice.  Whether it’s what carseat to buy, whether to breastfeed or what kind of birth you should have, everybody has an opinion.  Perhaps the most advice you get, though, is about how you should parent.

This is where one of my biggest personal pet peeves comes in.  Not only do people tell you how you should parent your children, but they back up their unsolicited advice with the classic whammy— strangers with compliments.

See if this is familiar…

"I’m very strict and people are always coming up to me in public and complimenting my children."

"We use Attachment Parenting and strangers are always complimenting our children on their behavior."

Apparently, this is the gold standard by which we should judge all parenting decisions — will strangers praise my children if I do this?

There are several enormous problems with choosing your parenting style based on strangers with compliments, however.  To name a few….

  • I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but strangers will compliment just about any children at some point.  I don’t really know very many families whose children have never been complimented in public.  It’s not nearly as exclusive of a group as we’d like to believe.
  • When we look at our long-term goals for our children, should ournumber one goal be to be to please others?  And not just others, but strangers?  What does it say about us as parents if our first priority is to have children who’ll earn us praise from random people?
  • If we use this as a standard for raising children "right" then it sends a message that we’re doing it "wrong" if our kids stop pleasing people.  If we tout the admiration of the public as proof that Attachment Parenting is the right way to parent, for instance, then what happens if our kids have bad days and annoy those same people?  Then are we parenting badly?  Should we switch methods?  Has the method failed, or have we, or do we blame our children?  Setting up this false goal of impressing others as a benchmark of parenting right means that we set ourselves and our children up to fail when they have perfectly human moments.
  • Likewise, what message does this send to our kids?  The most important thing is how you look and act.  It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling or what you’re going through, you need to just "be good" so other people like you?
  • This preoccupation with what others think completely distracts us from the paramount goal of good parenting — teaching.  Discipline allows us to teach our children how to handle the problems, stresses and obstacles they’ll face in life.  It is also our one shot to teach them how to be really happy, really good people.  Door mats are well liked, especially as children. Obviously, we want our children to be considerate but we should also regularly think about what else we want for them and what messages we’re sending with our discipline.

My kids have been complimented by strangers many times over the years.  They tend to act pretty darn good in public and my husband and I work really hard to keep them happy and occupied in restaurants and other public places.  And yes, it’s nice when an elderly lady comes over and says how polite our children are or passengers thank us when we get off a plane for having such well behaved little ones.

But there have also been times when my kids were less than perfect, and that was okay.  There was the time at the Nebraska capitol when Jack (then 4) had a meltdown over not getting to buy something at the souvenier shop.  He was not happy.  His sister got a cool ring, his friend got a cooler ring, and I think he had enough money for a small rock (not even a cool one).  It was the end of a very long day with lots of being quiet and acting good.  He was over it.

My friend and the rest of our kids went on ahead to the van and I waited on the capitol steps with a very loud, very angry Jack.  He yelled at me.  He cried.  He said it wasn’t fair.  I talked quietly and patiently to him and stayed with him until he was better.  In the meantime, a lot of people in expensive suits walked by and gave us looks.  I smiled.  Some smiled back, some didn’t.  I didn’t really care about what strangers in Nebraska thought about us.  My 4 year-old boy was learning a whole lot of important things, like how to handle frustration and unfairness, how fits won’t get you cool rings no matter how loud you get but your mom will still be there and sympathize.  It was his only real public temper tantrum and it was a doozy, but when it was over he held my hand and we walked to the van talking about it. 

Two years ago, my kids and I went on a vacation to Maine with friends.  We ended up at a swanky gourmet restaurant early one evening.  I had 3 young children and an infant to keep quiet and happy in a very small restaurant.  The restaurant was wonderful.  We had appetizers with edible, organic flowers on the plates and we tasted things we’d never dreamed of.  The sweet waiter brought each of my kids a flower to munch.  My kids loved it.  They happily talked about their flowers, laughed and tried to act very fancy.

The whole time, I kept trying to hush them.  "Quiet voices," I’d remind them with a smile.  Elbows off the table.  Shhhh.  I bounced the baby, kept my hand on Jack’s knee, kept eye contact with my girls.  Finally, my friend Sue looked at me and said "The people at the next table are 3 times louder than your kids.  Relax!".

I realized that I was so concerned about making sure my children were behaving well that I was denying them the right to enjoy this wonderful experience.  They didn’t have to act mute to be good!  They didn’t need higher standards than the half drunk businessmen at the next table who did indeed drown out my little kids’ happy chatter.

Kids who are well loved tend to be well behaved, especially when we set good examples ourselves.  It’s great to have great kids, and even nicer when outsiders notice just how well we’ve done with them.  Let’s let go of that as a yardstick, though. 

We all have a responsibility to be considerate in public, whether we’re businessmen or 4 year-olds.  We all also have a right to enjoy ourselves.  And we all have a right to an occasional bad day.

When deciding the right way to bring up our children, there’s a whole lot to think about.  We want them to be kind…  Moral.  Curious.  Brave.  Creative.  Passionate.  Dependable.  Honest.  Strong.  Loving.  Resilient.  Self confident.  Happy.  We want the world to be a better place because they’re in it.  Impressing strangers with their table manners can be on the list, but let’s not put it quite at the top. 



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2 responses to “Strangers with Compliments

  1. Anonymous

    Purple Glasses
    I thought I’d go back and read what I’ve missed. Good points, I’ve mostly enjoyed stranger comments on my well behaved children. There is one time recently though I felt differently. The Scientist took us all to the eye doctor, we all wear glasses and it’s a quite fun to take up all the waiting room seats as we schedule our appointments together. Me being the over forty mama I am had to have some drops put in my eyes to test for one thing or another. The side effect being my pupils got quite large and I found it hard to focus. Unfortunate since three children and the Scientist wanted my attention as they chose new frames. It took some time but everyone finally agreed on which frames they wanted and finally it was my turn to chose. I couldn’t see real well by then and was feeling closed in, it seemed we’d been at the eye doctor for near three hours by then. Everyone agreed I should chose a purple pair of frames with diamond bits on the side. The Scientist said he liked them and the kids agreed they were cool. I agreed. Three weeks later, I was food shopping, wearing my new purple glasses for the first time. “Thank you,” says the check out clerk as she hands me my receipt. “Oh, she adds, your grandchildren are just adorable.” Ouch. I’m sure it’s the diamond like jewels on the sides of the glasses, since then I’ve noticed it’s a trend with the over sixty crowd. That’s one stranger’s comment that hurt. : )
    Off to the next article.

  2. Anonymous

    There’s always one…
    Isn’t there some old Internet joke that goes something like: Computer + Anonymity = A*hole? 😉 There’s always some anonymous person ready to bash others in a way they’d never dare to do in “real life.” Your article was beautiful and any reasonable person would have to admit your ideas have merit, even if they don’t agree with them!

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