The Character Movement

Reflective Parenting: The Case of the Pool Mom

On one of those days of 90-degree heat in August, I took Tess to our local pool for a swimming lesson. As she was getting in the water with her instructor, a mother and her son made a loud and harried entrance. The little boy was throwing a fit. He didn’t want to swim today. At first the mom tried gentle encouragement, but the more her child refused the less patient she became. The “it’s time for your lesson” sing-song turned into the exasperated “mommy gets her own time too” which finally degenerated into a shout, “If you don’t get into the water right now, you won’t get to play with your Legos when you get home!” At this point the little boy completely lost it and fell on to the deck crying.

During all of this I noticed the other adults at the pool were looking on in a kind of amused wonder and no doubt thinking, “Can you believe this woman?”

Tess was happily splashing around in the pool with the instructor and I indulged myself in a moment of smug self-satisfaction. My little girl would never throw a tantrum like that. I’m not the kind of parent who loses their temper with their child.

Then I remembered a time two years ago that made me feel a little embarrassed with myself. Tess, my wife, Jane, and I were hiking the beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior. Jane and I loved the views, the exercise and the time out in nature. Tess did not. She switched between the classic, “How much longer?” and unabashed complaint, “This isn’t very fun.”

My wife and I were trying to enjoy some needed family time, but we had also organized the hike with the hopes of teaching Tess to appreciate nature. We showed her birds we don’t see in the city and tried to get her to find shapes in clouds. Like the mother at the pool we started out nicely, but the more Tess resisted the more I started to lose my patience. Pretty soon the words came out, “We’re going to enjoy quality family time right now or else!”

Recalling this frustrated parenting moment put my judgment of the “pool mom” into perspective. I have no idea what kind of day the mom had that led her to her breaking point. Maybe instead of feeling smug I could have extended her some compassion. Maybe I could have given her the benefit of the doubt that she was perhaps — like most of us — a pretty good parent most of the time and entitled to a bad day once in a while.

For me, parenting has been a continuous lesson in perspective-taking. Most parents I know are doing the best they can in the moment they are doing it. Sometimes it’s not so good, sometimes it’s pretty darn good. The case of the “pool mom” reminded me that I need to continue my practice of withholding judgment of other parents in their difficult moments and also forgive my own lapses in patience or moments I’d like to do over.

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