Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Non-parent's Dilemma

I am a non-parent.  "Non-parents" are very different from "people who choose not to have children" or "people who have decided to remain childless."  The non-parent identity (a hybrid adjective/noun/verb that reeks of "lack") clings to those of us who define ourselves (or are defined by others) according to the white space in our lives rather than by the tangibles.  Given my non-parent status, it is safe to say that I am not qualified to assess "good parenting" versus "not so good parenting" or "appropriate discipline" versus "way too lenient" non-discipline.  Which is why I try (though admittedly sometimes fail) not to offer parenting advice, engage in parenting discussions, or compare the behavior and disposition of one child to another.  Essentially, how others choose to navigate parenthood -- and sometimes even survive it -- is none of my business.

That said, I often struggle with how to respond when a child's behavior rises to a level that I find unacceptable.  This is especially challenging when said child's parents are present and seem indifferent to - or worse, amused by - the very behavior I consider problematic.  As a non-parent, I tend to think that these moments are nothing more than overreactions on my part.  I get that parenting is often a "pick your battles" kind of world, and I assume that the battles become less and less pickable over the years, until finally only the wars are worth fighting, and only the big stuff generates any kind of parental response.

This is all to say that, over the past few weeks, I have become aware of a new family in my apartment complex.  I usually see the mother and all five of her very young children walking and playing and splashing around in their kiddie pool when I pull into the parking lot or walk to my mailbox at the end of the day. The children are adorable - dark hair, big beautiful eyes, full of life and excitement ... the kind of life and excitement that often presents itself in the form of yelling. Everything. REALLY LOUD.  No matter what time of day or what level of urgency (i.e. "I'M SITTING ON THE SWING!" warrants the same volume level as "I FELL AND I'M BLEEDING!")  At these moments, mom is always - without fail - talking on the phone or buried in an Ipod or a book while her kids experience life right in front of her, yet so far removed from her presence.  I often wish she would just sit and watch them, but then the "non-parent" in me yells "It's none of your business.  Move on. There is nothing to see here." And on I go.

But last night was different.  Because last night, as my dog Beckett and I strolled through the parking lot, one of the children, the littlest girl who looks to be about four years old, screamed "CAN I PET THE DOGGIE?!" as we passed their driveway. 

"Of course you can," I responded quietly, modelling the volume level I hoped she would imitate. "I'm going to hold his harness, though, because he's very playful and I don't want him to jump," I added.  Yet before I could grab Beckett's harness, the child came bounding toward us with her arms stretched wide screaming "DOGGIE! DOGGIE! DOGGIEEEEEEEE!" which, of course, resulted in a barking, cowering Beckett.

"It's ok," I assured her.  "He just gets scared when it's too noisy or when you move too quickly."  I looked at the mom, who stood half watching, half reading whatever on her Ipod was more important than her barely-out-of-toddlerhood child.  "Here, I'll hold him so you can meet him if you'd like," I added.  By now, the little girl stood rigid in front of me, both arms folded, a dirty look on her face, a glare beaming out of her big, brown eyes.  She didn't seem scared at all.  She seemed ... angry?  Was that possible? 

"NO!" she snapped suddenly, answering my silent question.  "Now I don't WANT to pet him!"

Yup, she was angry.

"He's a stupid doggie and I hope he dies," she hissed before pivoting on her tiny flip flops and storming back up to her mother, who by now was looking at me with a "Kids ... what can you do?" kind of expression, complete with exasperated shoulder shrug.  Here's the thing: Don't ask questions - not even in the form of nonverbal facial expressions - that you don't want answered, lady. 

"Um, excuse me," I was more official now as I walked up the driveway toward mom and her suddenly-less-cute tot.  I bent down to the little girl's level and addressed her directly, in front of her mother, who was now, finally, completely engaged in the situation, and looking both worried and curious about how this rare confrontation of her child was going to play out.

"I'm sorry if my doggie scared you when he barked.  But he is a doggie, and he likes it when people are gentle with him and come up to him slowly." The little girl was quiet now, staring at me as if I  had several heads, none of which she cared to look at, and none of which she dared to look away from. 

"But calling him names and saying you wish he was dead are not going to stop the doggie from barking or jumping.  Only talking to him softly will help him do that."  And then I finished with: " And I would be very sad if anything happened to my doggie."  Then I waited.  I don't know what I was waiting for.  Part of me was waiting for her to tell me she wished I would die.  Part of me was afraid that, even in my attepmt to be gentle, she would start crying because someone had finally taken an interest (in the unfamiliar form of adult authority) in her behavior.

After a few minutes of staring at one another, the child looked away as I stood to walk back to my apartment, saddened by how effortlesly she had laid a death wish on my dog, because I knew she had no concept of what that even meant and no understanding of the power of words or the finality of what she had said. 

As I clicked my signature "Come" noise in Beckett's direction, I heard a soft voice ask "Does he like little girls?"  I spun to face the child again, because I couldn't believe she was capable of producing such a bearable volume level or such an innocent, genuine question.

"You know what?" I asked, as I bent back down and looked directly at her.  "I don't know.  He is never around little girls.  Or little boys.  It would be really nice if he could meet you and have a little girl friend, though.  What do you think about that?"

At that moment, even as a non-parent, I saw what parents mean when they describe a child's smile as "lighting up the world."  She smiled the biggest, brightest smile and walked over to me, put her hand on top of my hand, which was resting on Beckett's back, and said "I could be his first friend."  And then, before I could respond, she bent down and kissed Beckett's head.

As I got up to leave, I noticed that mom hadn't blinked in almost five full minutes, though she, too, was smiling.  I don't know if she was smiling because the little girl was finally calm, or if she was as touched as I was by the ability of a child, of her child, to show compassion, to admit that perhaps she had been wrong, and to open herself to the possibility of connecting to another living being (in this case both Beckett and me).  But whatever it was, I allowed myself to step into this unknown mother's world for just a moment - not as a parent, or as someone who had earned a full time membership in that world, but as someone who had seen a child in need of guidance and who had, despite mom's presence, provided what guidance I could.

I imagine the little girl and all her siblings will be out playing tonight when I take Beckett for his post-dinner walk.  Mom will probably be engaged with something electronic while her kids have once-in-a-lifetime experiences right in front of her distracted eyes.  But I also know that Beckett and I will stop by just to say hello to his new little friend, because even as a non-parent, I know that sometimes life isn't about picking the battles or fighting the wars.  Sometimes, life can be as simple as E.M. Forrester's suggestion: "Only Connect."


  1. What a touching story Heather. You made a difference in that child's life, and hopefully the mother's. I was recently involved in a discussion about how parents today are more interested in their ipads and text messages than watching their children in public places. This is a perfect example.

  2. I just wrote about parents and their devices. I HATE seeing moms and dads indulging in their texting or iPads instead of talking and playing with their kids. It will all come back to bite them in the butt, sadly. These young kids will have no idea what eye contact is anymore. Sad, sad, sad. You non-parent hit the nail on the head!

    Love your story about Beckett and how he charmed this little girl in the end. You done good, HH. That mother should thank you!

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  4. Beautiful story. I know what you mean about non-parent.I'm in a category of my own. I'm at "My husband doesn't want any more children, so I choose not to have children". I have never been good around kids. I'm scared to death about how I will be once Rebekah starts to talk and mouth off and misbehave if she's interacting with me. I'm an only child, I never babysat and my stepkids were teenagers when I met them. So, I can understand where you're coming from. It took guts to do what you did. Congratulations!


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