Practicing empathy in the age of "How could she?" parent shaming

When I first started writing about safetyshaming and the panic-inducing messaging of the baby industrial complex, I jotted down these thoughts about toilet seat locks and promptly forgot about them:

Of all the baby safety products on offer, one of the most baffling is the toilet seat lock. Is it to prevent a kid from lifting the lid and dropping it on her fingers? Seems she'd only need to do that once or twice to learn not to. Is it to keep the baby from somehow climbing into the toilet and drowning? That seems on the far rim of probability. Or maybe the lock is more about keeping your own stuff in good working order--no puddles on the floor and no drowned phones. 
I'd be all for a toilet latch if it could magically prevent the seat from being left up. But why are we working so hard to keep kids out of the toilet? Is this something I'll learn as a parent of an older child? 

I discovered these notes six months later, during which time I've learned two new things. First, the company that sells the leading toilet auger on Amazon is sold by ACME Tools, which means I recently received a 4-foot long box marked "ACME." That's almost worth the effort of clearing the clog created by my own little Wile. E. Coyote. 

The second thing I've learned is that while rice is a lousy desiccant, silica gel can dry out a damp cell phone.

And that’s why you don’t bribe your kid with YouTube. #pottytraining #parentingfail #1minutemess

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And these are just two of the lessons I've learned during my three years of parenting. I've also learned that if you write an article about why you shouldn't worry about kids climbing on furniture, your kid will start using the kitchen drawers as a makeshift climbing wall. I've learned that the shredder is not a safety hazard, but a personal finance hazard. I've learned that prioritizing your child's independence eventually makes you so sleep-deprived you end up locking him in his room.

Of course, the real lesson here isn't any of these things. It's about practicing empathy instead of assuming my parenting is "right." 

If social media is a reliable metric, our focus on our own children is only surpassed by our focus on what other parents are doing wrong with their children. In this age of "How Could She?" parent shaming, we scroll through Instagram, sure that that mom with the spotless floors and perfectly-coiffed children must be discouraging their free spirits, or selfishly using the family's funds to pay for cleaners while she's at work, when in reality she's probably photographing the one clean corner of her home, or just using a great filter. We're sure that the mom posting Facebook pleas about sleep training, potty training, or training bras would be doing a better job if she would just relax and do it our way. We're sure that the flaws we see in other people's children are a product of their parenting, while at the same time only claiming ownership of our own children's successes. 

Instead of making these judgments, we need to practice empathy for other parents. We need to look forward, imaging what it might be like to have a four year old, a kindergartner, a high school graduate, or a grandchild. We simultaneously need to look backward, imagining how our hardest parenting moments may have been made harder were our circumstances different.

One creative response to this administration's disturbing targeting of minority groups has been to build temporary empathy walls. These walls require only the humblest of tools--post-it notes and markers--to project messages of solidarity with populations that are fearful of their place in America. These walls are a beautiful way to reclaim public spaces in order to convey love and acceptance of others.

I love these simple acts of protest and kindness. But in some ways, they're easy. It's easy to see blatant discrimination, or racism, or xenophobia, and have a strong response to it. It's easy to feel moral superiority as we criticize actions designed to disenfranchise others. It's harder to look inside ourselves and observe those moments when we fail at empathy, when we jump to criticism and judgment.

So I'm going to try a personal empathy wall. When I catch myself thinking "How could she be so careless?" or "I would never let my kid do that," or making any smug judgment of someone else's parenting, I'll add a post-it brick to my empathy wall. It's impossible to watch kids all the time. Parents have to let their kids take scary risks. We're all just doing the best we can.

I hope that these affirmations will help me shift from "How could she?" judgments to "Of course she" understandings.


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