Prior to parenthood, I could count on one hand the number of conversations I’d had with strangers. Certainly I chatted with folks in bars and in airplanes, but they seldom qualified as “conversation.”
As a mother, however, talking to people who are transient in my life has become my area of expertise. At the park and at Target, parents make eye contact, comment on the cuteness of each other’s offspring, and share information about a certain age group’s characteristics.
If parents are stuck in a shared space for an extended period of time, details emerge. This kind of minutiae you’d be hard pressed to reveal to someone in a bar, even if inebriated.
Imagine, in your pre-parent life, riding the train to work, commenting to the person next to you about your choice of cloth over disposable underwear. Parents of children below the age of four are especially oblivious to conversational boundaries as they revert to their fallback topic of discussion: poop.
Most parent conversations ebb and flow with relative ease, and serve the great purpose of solidifying comradery within the parent race. Yes, my stranger friend, I remember passing out from exhaustion after getting the baby to sleep at 4:00 am to be jarred awake by the pre-schooler at 4:12 am; my empathy is oozing out of my pores in nostalgia.
Occasionally, however, sticky parent conversations arise. These are usually the ones that involve politics, family culture, and “discipline.” I use quotation marks on the latter word because it is really that sticky.
When Parent A feels a connection to Parent B and expresses a belief, assuming incorrectly that Parent B will agree wholeheartedly… well, herein lies the rub. In such circumstances, does Parent B remain silent, knowing her time together with Parent A will end in the pediatrician’s waiting room? Or does she share a nugget of wisdom, hoping to plant a seed that will blossom into a whole new way of thinking?
I faced this dilemma recently during my 3-year-old daughter Nina’s gymnastics class. As I observed the class, a fellow mom asked brightly, “Which one’s yours?” (As an aside, I genuinely appreciate parents who don’t make the assumption that the brown-skinned child belongs to the brown-skinned parent.)
I pointed Nina out and said, “She’s the one with the bun on her head.” Then, as is the custom, I asked the exact same question. My fellow mom’s daughter was four years of age and named Jo. As we watched the class, a friendship that would last exactly 45 minutes began.
We were reveling in our rapport until Jo’s mom said, “Do you see how advanced Jo is compared to the rest of the kids? Wanna know how?” I didn’t, quite honestly, but she continued. “She’s been teaching herself gymnastics from YouTube videos. I just give her the iPad and put down a mattress on the floor and she’s at it for hours.”
I felt my shoulders involuntarily tighten as she went on. “Isn’t it amazing what kids can teach themselves these days from an iPad? Gymnastics, cooking, knitting, all kinds of things.”
As I dug deep into the recesses of my frontal lobe for something to say, I thought of the time a friend inquired about my decision to raise my children screen-free (well, 99.9 percent of the time) over a cup of tea.
My response went something like this: “I value the benefits of technology and my husband’s career as a computer engineer is what puts food on the table. But I have also seen first-hand how technology can impede quality of life. When I view the long-term development of my children, I think they profit more from being able to engage with less stimulating activities than screens. They are experiencing the joy and contentment which comes with a slower, simpler pace of life; a certain richness of childhood that accompanies real-life experiences and relationships more than virtual ones. There will be a time, when my kids’ brains are fully formed, when the introduction of technology in their lives will be age-appropriate.”
My friend said, “That really is a thought-provoking way of explaining the benefits of a low-media childhood. Can I quote you on that?”
But as I looked at Jo’s mom, I could not summon up the courage to quote myself. There was no tea involved in our temporary kinship. And I am keenly aware that parenting is a series of very personal decisions that parents make based on the information they have and what feels right to them.
On one hand, I may have been able to produce a few choice words that resonated with Jo’s mom. She might have said, “Oh, how interesting. Can you recommend a book so I can learn more about the research on the effects of exposing young children to media?” (I can.)
On the other hand, she could have been been repulsed and labeled me as “The crazy lady who doesn’t let her children have screen time.” It could also be neither. I don’t know because this topic of parenting is as sticky as chewing gum in a child’s hair.
I was still contemplating my response when the class, and my 45-minute relationship with Jo’s mom, ended. We would probably never cross paths again. Jo may or may not grow up to become an Olympic athlete, self-taught from YouTube. I’ll never know.
In the parking lot, we saw Jo and her mom. We waved, but Jo, glued to her mom’s phone, was in another world.
“Why won’t Jo wave bye-bye, Mama?” Nina asked. For the second time that morning I was tongue tied. As parents connect, so do children; it’s what binds us in humanity. But in that moment the connection that my child was seeking from another was thwarted by an electronic device.
As I reflected, Nina answered her own question. “Maybe she was in a hurry because she had to go poop.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Some conversations lend themselves to un-sticking more easily than others.