I once read a study designed to determine whether or not three and four year old children can understand that other people perceive reality differently than they do.
Imagine this: A room full of toddlers is shown a video about Jack. Jack is sitting at the kitchen table, eating a chocolate bar. His father calls him from the other room. He gets down from the table, puts the chocolate in a drawer, and exits the kitchen. His mother then enters the kitchen and retrieves a pair of scissors from the drawer. She also takes the chocolate bar and puts it in the fridge. Exit mother.
Jack returns to the kitchen, and then the video is paused. The children are asked, individually, where Jack will look for the chocolate bar.
Can you guess what happens?
The vast majority of the children will say the refrigerator. Even though they know that Jack did not see his mother put it there, they cannot grasp the idea that Jack would do something incongruous with reality as they perceive it.
The study has since come into question. But. I’m totally one of those four year olds.
I’m the kid standing there thinking, “Jack–you fool–why are you looking in the drawer?” (Although, actually, when it comes to chocolate, I’m probably more often the one standing there over the empty drawer with a bewildered look on my face…)
But I digress. The point being: I was completely floored yesterday by the parenting skills evidenced by an individual I have been inclined to judge a little harshly in the past. Okay, maybe a lot harshly. Just let me tell you that his actions did not align with my view of reality.
The incident shouldn’t have surprised me; his daughter is one of the happiest, healthiest, most intelligent infants in my care. He, on the other hand, is one of the scariest looking eighteen year old boys I have ever encountered. There is no way I would pick him out on the street and readily say, Hey, now that looks like the father of the year. But if I had to give out an award today, he might get it.
Nothing has taught me how wholly unsuitable I am to judge another parent so much as providing child care for 84 children over the past four plus years. I’ve interacted with some less than stellar parents, let me assure you. But in no case have I met a parent whose faults outweighed their intrinsic goodness. Every parent, no matter how serious their parental shortcomings in some areas, excelled in others. They were incredibly joyful people to be around, or empathetic, or driven to see their child succeed socially, academically or physically.
I’m not saying that unsuitable parents do not exist; I’m saying I’ve never met one. Most parents are good parents. Most parents understand and desire what is fundamentally best for the children they have been blessed with, whether biologically or legally. Nobody’s perfect and every parent will wonder at times what they’ve gotten themselves into and distrust their own capacity to parent.
But in the daily struggle to be a better–or even competent–parent, believe that you are better than you think you are. Believe that you are providing benefits to the children in your care that are incomprehensible to you at this point.
Childstats.gov states that of the 74.5 million children in this country, 41% are born to single mothers (21 out of 1000 of those are to teen mothers), 61% of children younger than six are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent, and while 67% live with two married parents, approximately 2.96 million live with neither parent.
If you are one of the many grandparents, aunts or uncles, or foster parents struggling to provide for the children some other parent abdicated responsibility for, God bless you in your efforts. You are in that child’s life for a reason and you can work miracles, just by being you. I have met some amazing women who are raising their grandchildren, and no matter how much they blame themselves for their children’s mistakes, they are still doing incredible things with the little people their adult children have abandoned to their care. Hat’s off to you, ladies.
And the next time you see that mother with a screaming toddler or that teenage father with an unkempt infant in his arms, don’t close yourself off from compassion. You can’t possibly know where they’ve been or what they’ve seen or what brought them to that place they now inhabit. What you can believe is that they are trying to do the best they can. May we all be a little less eager to point an accusing finger and a little quicker to lend a helping hand.
(And someone please feel free to tell me where I might find my stash of chocolate Kisses…)