Judging parenting styles is as old as time. It’s certainly not a novel idea. But it’s so easy. Even a tiny glimpse into how a parent is interacting with his/her child, may give you cause to silently or verbally ridicule them. They’re too harsh, too lenient, too controlling, too permissive, too out there, too boring, too nice, too mean, or too something else. It’s so easy.
Not being a mother myself, I try my best to keep myself in check when it comes to judging parents. After all, they have the hardest job in the entire world. Props to all the parents out there.
But, there are also those times when a little judgment is needed. I encountered such a time last night.
My husband and I went out to dinner and were seated next to a mother and her daughter, who couldn’t have been older than 10. Upon sitting at our table and being handed the menus, we were witness to an emotionally distraught little girl withering under the scornful eyes and words of her mother. This little girl was sobbing, not the manipulative cry that 10-year-old girls do when they want their way, but a real, hurting, emotional cry. I immediately wanted to hug this little girl (I may not be a mother but I do have some maternal instincts).
For the next hour and a half, we listened to the mother berate and shame her daughter about her behavior, which became very clear to my husband and I was a result of full blown anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. This little girl was struggling with mental illness, and her mother wasn’t having any of it. I cannot tell you how hard this was to watch.
Well, let me try. It made my skin crawl, my jaw clench, my heart hurt, and my hands want to strangle this mother. This, folks, is a parenting situation that I give myself clearance to judge the shit out of, because it should never fucking happen. Ever.
The following is an open letter to this mother, the words I couldn’t bring myself to say to her face, but words that will hopefully prevent other parents from committing the same detrimental mistakes she did.
Dear mother of a mentally ill daughter sitting at the table next to me,
I see you. I see your shifty eyes, your cold stare, and your need to control your child. I see the hurt in your daughter’s eyes as you tell her you’re disappointed that she’s done it again. I see her tears coming stronger as you tell her that you’re onto her “game,” that she has got to stop, that she has upset everybody (every single person) at her summer camp, and that she’s the reason you’ve had to come and get her, to talk some sense into her. I see her shoulders shake as you explain that you’re here to give her the “tough love” she needs, and that her father isn’t here because he isn’t capable of giving her this tough love.
I see your daughter’s self-worth crumbling as you pick apart every single thing she does – “Straighten your fingers,” “Hands on the table like mine,” “That’s not how you hold a crayon,” “You didn’t draw the line right,” “Do you want to order food? Then stop.” Every few seconds, your daughter was ripped from any resemblance of childhood by your commands.
I see you instilling further anxiety into your daughter as you shame her for feeling worried about germs. “There are germs everywhere in life. You can’t be afraid of germs. You can’t do this anymore. You’re upsetting people. Did the waitress pass her germs to you when she handed you your drink? There are germs everywhere, but they die. You can’t let germs bother you. Here, I just touched this crayon to my nose. Now it has my germs. Anyone else who touches the crayon will get some of my germs.” I watch in horror as you reach across the table and shove the crayon onto your daughter’s nose, on your quest to prove to her that germs are nothing to worry about. I cringe as you do this a second time, even when your daughter cries, “Stop!” and physically backs away from you.
I see you unwilling to let your daughter smile, even for a minute, without reminding her of her shortcomings. “See, this is the kid you used to be. You’re having fun. Why can’t you do that at camp? Why do you have to play your game with the camp counselors? They’ve been in contact with me and have told me how you freak out about nothing, over and over.”
Finally, I see you controlling every inch of her as she tries to enjoy her dinner – “Sit on this side,” “Hands on the table like mine,” “Straighten your fingers,” “Don’t crunch your fists like that, it upsets people,” “How do you hold a hamburger? Not like that.” And later, which really takes the cake, “You’ll have to take a break from eating to call your father. He’s really worried about you. Are you ready to call him? Wipe your hands. Are your hands clean? Are they CLEAN?!”
After observing you and your daughter for over an hour, I have a few things I’d like to say to you.
First and foremost, you have a beautiful daughter. She’s struggling and she needs you. This is a pivotal point in your job as a parent. You can be loving, caring, understanding, and supportive, or you can be cold, callous, judgmental, and cruel. Which kind of parent do you want to be?
Second, when you learn of your daughter’s struggles, the right thing to do is to be quiet and listen. Hear your daughter out. Learn why she’s feeling upset and what she needs. She can’t talk if you never shut up. And she certainly won’t open up to you if you judge her, blame her, and shame her for her feelings. Your daughter needs validation that her feelings are neither right or wrong, regardless of how they play out.
Third, your daughter’s actions are not a game to her. A game is supposed to be fun for children. Does it look like your child is having fun? She is not playing you or anyone else. Mental illness is not a game. There are no rules. And your daughter doesn’t want to play; she doesn’t have control over her illness. Any amount of blame or shame you place onto her will not change that.
Fourth, in addition to my third point, if all it took to change someone’s behaviors or feelings that are rooted in mental illness, was to lecture it out of them, our world would be cured. Do you think your daughter wants to ruin her summer camp experience with meltdowns? At 10 years old, she is well aware of how her behavior looks to other people. If she could control her reactions to anxiety, she would. And by the way, she is not the embarrassment here.
Fifth, the appropriate reaction to learning that your daughter’s life is being affected by her fear of germs, is not to say the word “germs” 17 hundred times or to remind her that germs are everywhere. And you can bet that shoving a germy restaurant crayon into her face will not cure her. What you’re doing is building her anxiety and increasing her debilitating fear.
Sixth, mental illness is hereditary. Picking apart and correcting everything your daughter does is a clear sign of your need to control your environment. Take a look into your family history and your childhood. Explore your experiences with anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions, and then seek help. Immediately.
Seventh, the outside world can be cruel and can leave lasting marks, especially on those who struggle with mental illness. Your daughter doesn’t need tough love from her mother. Society will offer enough of that, trust me. What she needs is for you to hug her, hold her, listen to her, and love her, unconditionally. If not you, then who?
Eighth, if your ridicule and shaming doesn’t stop, your daughter is headed towards dangerous life paths. It won’t be long until she has her first suicide attempt, since her self-worth has been cut down to nothing. An eating disorder may enter the picture, since your daughter isn’t allowed to control anything else in her life. It won’t be surprising if she turns to alcohol and drug use to cope with her disorder(s), since she hasn’t been allowed to develop healthy coping skills. It’s inevitable that your daughter will be at greater risk for dating violence, teen pregnancy, and drop out, since children who are not validated or accepted at home so often seek out acceptance elsewhere, even when it comes with harmful and lifelong side effects.
I noticed your daughter didn’t look up very much during your meal. The reason I know this is because I wanted so badly to make eye contact with her, to lend a friendly smile or kind gaze, to shield her from your torment, even if only temporarily. I wanted to wrap my arms around your daughter and pull her close, to tell her that even in the short time I’ve been near her, I can tell that she is beautiful, poised, patient, and kind. I wanted her to know that she is worthy of love, acceptance, and happiness, even and especially when she’s struggling. I wanted to encourage her to be around people who help make her feel good, and that those kinds of people do exist.
And lastly, I wanted to tell her to stay strong and finish out her summer camp experience, so that she can be away from you as long as possible.
The upset-by-you-and-not-by-your-daughter diner at the table next to you