It's always fun when your kids are falling apart in public, isn't it?
I'll never forget a trying day I had in a Target checkout line. I was pregnant, with two bickering children in tow. After I left the store and shuffled us toward the car, a woman approached me and said, "I just want you to know that you're doing a really good job." That kind stranger made my day.
Compare that story to something I read about this week, a new development in the loathsome trend known as "mom shaming," in which strangers criticize others' parenting choices online. With so much to toss grenades at—breast or bottle? sleep-train or not?—there's plenty to keep the trolls busy. But this new twist makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The gist: A stranger snaps a photo of a parent doing something he/she deems "wrong," posts it with an incendiary caption, and sits back to watch the sparks fly. Rachel Garlinghouse writes in HuffPost Parents:
First I read the story of a mom child-wearing her 5-year-old while shopping in a store. The store manager took a photo of the pair and posted it on her personal Facebook page along with critical commentary. The photo began circulating online, and the mom later discovered the photo herself."¨"¨ The second story was a mom who was nursing her baby in a restaurant when a [male] stranger took a photo of her and posted it online, along with a comment stating she needed to "cover up." The mom recognized her own photo after it had gained popularity online.
Like Garlinghouse, I'm appalled that there are people who think it's okay to snap a photo of a parent in public who is simply in the middle of...parenting, and then post that picture with an intent to stir the pot. I like to think that most of us parents with young children are too busy to be seizing opportunities to photo-stalk people we don't know and upload those images for, for... (Really, for what?) Even more nauseating, YouTube is rife with videos of parents shaming their own children—videos the parents created themselves—to teach their kids "a lesson," sometimes with tragic results. Some parents have thankfully spoken out against the practice, like this father did, in memorable fashion.
Shaming one another has always been a part of our culture, it turns out, since at least the days of the public whipping post, as Jon Ronson says in his new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson writes: "I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we've created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It's all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people."
I hope not. I have my doubts when I read stories about mom shaming, and similarly, "good Samaritans" who call the police on parents when they see children "in danger"—walking to a park, or waiting alone in a car for a few minutes while a parent runs inside a store—and smugly walk away from the real nightmare they just set in motion for that family.
Instead of being judged for their every move, what parents really need from strangers: a little more kindness and compassion, not cellphone cameras pointed in their direction.
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and mom of three. You can follow her on Twitter.