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I Could Have Spoken Up When I Saw The Worst Of Parenting

Photograph by Twenty20

As a freelance editor, one of my jobs is with a magazine that centers on themes of self-compassion, simplifying your life and celebrating imperfection and life’s little pleasures. After reading all of its content for many years, I was finally convinced to enroll a mindfulness class.

I have always thrived on what is called eustress—the positive kind of stress that fills you with motivation and adrenaline and makes you perform at your best. I love having tight deadlines and schedules. Without a bit of panic, I don’t get nearly as much done.

But with children, my eustress has become stress-stress: I cannot afford to be so maxed out all the time or I have nothing left to give my children, yet if I don’t have the good stress I feel frustrated and down.

Meditation is hard for a multitasker. According to my mindfulness coach, I should be doing 45-minute body scans every day. A body scan is a mindfulness exercise that's about noticing your body. It's not really about relaxing—in fact, you are encouraged to ignore pains or itches or other irritations. The intention is that you are aware of your body, piece by piece, in the present moment.

I am trying.

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Last week, in the midst of a flurry of other things I had to do, I sat on the floor and listened to a guided meditation video on YouTube. It instructed me to set all of my focus on the big toe of my left foot. To notice any sensations I might have there. It felt absurd. If your mind wanders into a thought during this meditation, the intention is to bring it back by focusing on your breathing. But the thought my mind went to was too awful: an image from when I was 8 years old and used to go over to a neighbor’s house to play with her 3-year-old son.

He was adorable. Blond, floppy hair. Blue eyes. Lots of children from the neighborhood used to play with him. There were hints of sketchiness and unhappiness in the household, which I won’t get into, but on this particular day the mother came unleashed. The little guy was sitting on a training potty in the bathroom, and I was standing just outside the open door in the hall. When he failed to pee the in potty, his mother—in a robe at midday—held him up and smacked him mercilessly on the behind. Many times, over and over. He was welted and red and holding his arms out to me screaming, “Tracy help me.”

And I left.

Dutch children are different. Here, children are raised with the idea that they are a valid member of society. That they count.

It is such a painful memory that I asked my sister about it, hoping I’d invented it. But I didn’t. I was 8 and felt like I couldn’t help him. She was taking whatever her frustrations were out on a 3-year-old child and, even though I was only 8 years old, I could have said something to her. Sometimes that's all it takes to snap a person out of a rage.

It's only now that I realize I wasn't too young to say something. After all, I wasn't too young to know what she was doing was dangerous and wrong. And, in my life now, I see kids speaking up all the time—to adults.

An example: The other day I was parking my car along the canal in front of our house. We live in the Netherlands on a narrow street along a canal, and parallel parking our station wagon without falling into the water or colliding with another car or concrete pillar is tricky.

I think about how differently things may have gone if I’d just told her to stop. Or if I’d told the mom she could rest, and I’d take the little boy outside to play.

When I thought I had nailed it, I got out of the car. Then I heard a voice from the window of the apartment building above: “Mevrouw?” It was a boy of 8 or 9 who went on to tell me, politely, that I hadn’t parked correctly and should move my car a bit more forward.

He was right. I thanked him and moved my car.

It was a pretty low-stakes exchange, but it made me think: The reason I didn’t say anything to stop a mother beating my little friend was I had been taught, tacitly or otherwise, that children do not have a voice. That they cannot disagree with adults, cannot interfere with their behavior, cannot be right if they think an adult is wrong.

Dutch children are different. Here, children are raised with the idea that they are a valid member of society. That they count. That they can and should express themselves, state their judgment. Here, children are raised to be autonomous rather than merely obedient.

It would never have occurred to me, as a child, to defend a child against his mom or to speak up against any grownup. But I think a Dutch child would, and my children, growing up here, would also.

I think more American children would, too, more so than in the early '80s when I was 8.

At least, I hope so.

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I think about how differently things may have gone if I’d just told her to stop. Or if I’d told the mom she could rest, and I’d take the little boy outside to play. Or if I’d thought I could do anything in my position but run home.

It is also a reminder to me that parents have a responsibility to their children to keep it together, to not push themselves until they snap, to take care of themselves and live in a way that creates a safe atmosphere for their children. Even if it means receiving feedback on parking from a little kid.

Even if it means spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on the sensations of their big toes.

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