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That Time I Judged Another Parent Too Quickly

Photograph by Twenty20

For about six months, I've been working at a women's gym in the neighborhood I was raised in, the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Most of the community's residents are black. And though gentrification is rapidly changing the district's racial and economic demographics, the area has historically been inhabited by the working-class poor.

The other evening a black man came into the gym with three young children. He thought his wife might like it and was excited about discovering the pretty new facility. He had lots of questions about prices and the classes offered. His children were also excited and went from one machine to the next trying to see if they could catch a ride.

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I did my best to answer his questions, but he was often distracted by his children, as they called out for his attention frequently. I was probably even more distracted by them, as it can be very dangerous for young children to climb on gym equipment. I asked him to get his babies, and although he tried to get them to sit still, they just wandered in a different direction as their curiosity called to them.

Why do you think I'd do something horrible to my own child?

Finally one boy knocked something over, and the father raised his voice and said, "Come here now!" His tone was so stern, I felt my body tense and I raised my hands to my face, fearing what would come next. The boy did not come, and the father said two more times, "Come here," each time with a little more force. Finally the boy turned toward his father, and I shouted, "Please don't do anything to him, not here, not in front of me."

The father's eyes rose to meet mine, and he asked, "Why do you think I would do something horrible to my own child?" The boy came over to his father, placed his back against his father's chest and the father rested his arms around the boy's shoulders. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Let's just talk business," the father said. I apologized, and we moved on.

The most difficult thing about spending time in my old neighborhood is the level of verbal and physical neglect of children that I encounter. Of course, it is not all that I see—I also see parents who take good care and speak lovingly to their children. But when I witness children being admonished, pushed to the ground, left standing alone in tears or being unsupervised, I'm saddened. I remember how often adults, not understanding how much I understood of their words and conduct, hurt my feelings when I was child. I know those children being yelled at, cursed at and shoved, are going to remember those events all their lives. And at those times I do my best to remind myself how difficult parenting is and how easy it is to become exasperated with one's children.

I was mortified by the father's question of me. "Why do you think I'd do something horrible to my own child?" I felt a deep sense of shame wash over me, and I wanted so badly to explain myself. But I didn't know how to begin that conversation, so I answered all of his questions about the gym and gave him a one-month free membership for his wife. Shit, I'd have personally paid for a free year for her to make it right. The tension from our encounter had eased, but there was still some heightened energy between us.

I see black parents using corporal punishment to discipline their children far more often than any other group of parents. One Washington Post writer shares how many feel they must hit their children "so that they don't get into trouble outside the home by falling prey to gang violence or getting shot by police. ... They must toughen their children to prepare them for the harsh realities of being black in America."

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Before he left the gym, he turned to me and said, "If I can strike the perfect tone between power and urgency, my son, who has autism, will listen to me. If I'd failed to do so, I would have needed to leave altogether." Once I got over myself my embarrassment, I was grateful to have encountered a father who was simply doing what was needed to control his son's behavior in an environment where he was at risk of injury. But I continue to wonder, is it possible for me to discern the blurred line between parenting styles and the community I grew up in?

I had let my perceptions of the community I grew up in color my perceptions of the father. But I'm happy I was wrong about this father's intentions. I'm also happy I have the courage, however reactionary to stand up for a child when needed. I'd rather be wrong than watch a child suffer the humiliation of being hit in public.

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