Judging – and being judged on – the way we parent in public

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Sometimes when I catch the train from work, as it eases out of the city centre it collects a parent or two coming home to the little public housing suburb on my line. At that time of the evening the parents have small, tired children with them. All around this weary little family will be people like me, dressed in pencil skirts and suits, looking at our smart phones and decompressing from the day. The children will then invariably fidget and squabble, in that low blood sugar kind of way. Some of the suits will glance at the children with irritation. Peak hour trains are meant to be as silent as they are full. Everyone has tacitly agreed that commuting is for the luxury of undisturbed Internet time.

The parents of these restless children, with their hoods pulled up over their heads, their tattooed knuckles and their chipped painted nails bitten to the quick, are very hard on their kids. They lean over them and pinch the children or hold their arms a little tight. They tell the kids they’ll be getting a big, hard whack if this doesn’t stop right now. And it won’t stop. Because it’s that time of the evening and hungry four year olds can’t stop until they fall apart. I watch the escalation with rising tension. A threat made by a parent in front of strangers carries a certain finality. If you don’t follow through on your disciplinary warning it feels like a thousand onlookers are thinking you’re what’s wrong with the world and the kids in it today.

In contrast to what I see on the train, middle class parenting is all about self-esteem. We sometimes lose our s--t, like any other parent, and it isn’t pretty. But our disciplinary proceedings with children invariably begin thusly, “if you do that again I’m removing your computer privileges, I’m serious” and “are you making good choices right now?” Scarcely a parenting activity occurs without some evaluation by us of how the resultant shame or pride impacts our child’s sense of self. So, watching the parent or two bound for the public housing suburb on my otherwise middle class, peak hour train is a jarring experience. Their tempers seem so exposed. These parents seem very harsh with their authoritarian style of parenting and use of corporal punishment to my delicate middle class eyes. And my eyes are all the more delicate having spent the day childfree in an office.

Still, I wonder if some of what I am seeing on the train might be about the kind of preservation parenting writer, Toni Morrison talks about in her novels. She wrote about the role of mothers in oppressed communities to not just protect their children but also, to teach their children to protect themselves. The parents I see on the train might therefore want their children to learn how to be more subdued in public because growing up under an onslaught of class or racial discrimination makes flying under the radar a life skill. You need only look at the recent case of young Michael Brown, shot on a footpath by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, or closer to home, the young Aboriginal man, Kwementyaye Ryder beaten to death by a bunch of young white men in the Northern Territory to know what keeps black parents awake at night. Standing out can get you killed.

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But here’s the other thing I notice while on the train. When I catch the eye of those parents, and it can be difficult to do because parents with misbehaving kids keep their eyes fixed to the ground, but when I catch them and smile and they invariably smile back, something changes. The parents then soften towards their children. It appears that some of their interaction with their children was for the benefit of me and my fellow commuters. It was an especially firm form of parenting used for being in public. It also reflects the risk that comes with parenting while being poor.

The idea that parenting outside the privacy of your home might be more dangerous for some than others reminds me of the story of Debra Harrell. Working for minimum wage in McDonalds in the US, Harrell wasn’t able to afford childcare for her 9 year old daughter. For a while, when her daughter was waiting for Harrell to finish work she availed herself of the free wifi in McDonalds and played on the Internet. Harrell had managed to save enough money to buy them a laptop, but recently their home had been broken into and the computer stolen.

So, the girl had asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the playground, only about a kilometer and a half away, instead. Harrell gave her daughter a mobile phone, noted that the playground was shady and popular, with plenty of other children playing there, and went to work. But this is what happened next. An adult asked the girl where her mother was and when she said she was at work the adult reported the child as abandoned to authorities. Harrell was subsequently arrested and charged! There’s a risk for any mother in having her parenting deemed insufficient but the severity of intervention tends to rise dramatically the more marginalised she is.

A couple of very uncomfortable questions emerge from Harrell’s experience. Could it be that kids who look poor appear to us to need supervision when they’re in public space? Do they attract attention and a certain interpretation of their behaviour that a white middle-class child may not? And not just that, but what assumptions are made by a ‘concerned adult’ about Harrell as a mother that may not be made about a middle class mother? Was it easier to leap to conclusions about her as neglectful?

People believe in absolute truths with parenting. We’re terribly prone to self-delusion, too, making all sorts of self-serving assumptions about ourselves and how we compare to others. We therefore don’t tend to see parenting practices as being bound by time, opportunity or culture, even though they very much can be. For instance, one can hardly consider Harrell’s experience without noting that barely a generation ago children were routinely encouraged to play at parks without constant adult supervision. I guess the same could be said for smacking children on trains, though I tend to think an increased understanding of cognitive development in children leading to a move away from corporal punishment might not have been a bad thing.

It seems terribly sad to me then that the parents I see on the train are not just tired and grumpy with their young children but that they’re also feeling they need to use discipline to ward off our disapproval. Their strictness with their children, doomed to fail as it will at that time of the evening, is actually about assuring us that they’ve got this, the kids are alright. The other commuters and I go home and get tired and grumpy with our children too, but we’re so much more anonymous with it, so much less visible.