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My Cringe-Filled Experiences Around Other People's Kids

Photograph by Getty Images

From the minute they bustled through the doors, I started holding my breath. It was a small family — a set of older parents with a 3-year-old child — descending upon the already cramped airport lounge. There was a storm brewing on the East Coast, delaying a large batch of flights out. The benefit of being able to recline in comfy seats with a kind buffet of warm pasta, cold sandwiches and simple snacks and free Wi-Fi was not lost on me. I was ever grateful, specifically because I had my 5-year-old son along with me on this trip.

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We had just tucked into another bowl of cheddar fish when the trio — we’ll call them The Louds — stomped in. Kid Loud was high-octane, just whining and yelling and taking bratdom to the next level. Even my son said, “Mom, that kid is really whiny — way more whinier than any other person I’ve ever seen.” Word, li’l homey. Word.

The child’s parents looked completely exhausted and deflated: The dad proceeded to take out his laptop and fully ignore his kid, while the mother chased after and tried to corral the tiny human.

They picked the row of seats facing us. (Yay.) Kid Loud steamrolled over and started poking, talking, nudging, hugging, yelling, grabbing food and generally bugging my son. The two kids played, as best as they could. I must have heard Kid Loud’s name about 58 times in the span of 20 minutes, as the mother tried in vain to set her child straight. We still had another 90 minutes before our delayed flight was set to leave, yet I seriously considered fleeing the comforts of the lounge and heading to the sweatbox of the faraway, woefully neglected “satellite” terminal just to escape The Louds.

Instead I tried to focus on my newspaper, but ended up going over the same damn sentence on loop. At one point I was even reading out loud, in a stage whisper, to rise above the din of Kid Loud. Then I tried to zone out, get Zen, meditate. No luck. Listen, even Deepak Chopra would have given up and Namaste’d on out of there.

How do you decide between speaking up, trying to pass along some useful intel or saying nothing and letting grown folks — strangers, really — be responsible for their own parenting choices?

During one of my stifled eye-rolls, I glimpsed the mother across from me. She looked absolutely dispirited, edging up toward crushed. I felt for her and started thinking about how to help, how to lend something to the moment and make it a teachable one. How I might let her know that I know the truth: Motherhood is hard, and rarely without challenges. It can be utterly rewarding and demoralizing all in the same day. Hell, the same morning.

But, being honest, I wasn’t sure how to communicate any of this to her. I didn’t want to come across as some smarty-pants Judge Judy, telling another parent how to do her job.

It made me think about the many other awkward, cringe-filled experiences I’ve recently had around parents and their kids, specifically when one or both are behaving badly. Like the couple with two boys who talked shit about their younger son while he was standing right beside them. “He’s a total terror!” “He’s nothing like our oldest.” “He’s responsible for every last one of my grey hairs.”

I wanted to gently pull my sweater sleeve over their mouths. Ix-nay on the it-shay while your id-kay is right here…ay. They’re little, yes, but they do have ears — and feelings and memories, too. I was so stunned by their vitriol that all I could do was change the subject to how delicious the birthday cake was (it wasn’t).

How do you decide between speaking up, trying to pass along some useful intel or saying nothing and letting grown folks — strangers, really — be responsible for their own parenting choices? Maybe the better question is: Are you in a position to offer actual help or just judgment? Because a couple of hours together in an airport lounge or at birthday party or park will never be the full story.

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Trying to be all up in one family’s Kool-Aid and you don’t even know flavor is a losing game, and that ultimately serves no one. Lead your kids, be their parent, and maybe through example a teachable moment will come about organically and at random — as it did between Mama Loud and me, when out of no where she looked over and asked me if I had any recommendations for good preschool apps. I did, and happily shared them with my comrade, right there in the trenches.

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