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Other People's Kids

I’m reading a book right now called The War on Moms: On Life in a Family Unfriendly Nation. I’ve been carrying it with me on the train each morning, but it’s taking me forever to get through; it’s kind of a downer (as if the title couldn’t have tipped me off), so I’m offsetting it with regular doses of proportionately positive reading material. As a new mom, it’s unsettling to read about decent, hardworking people going bankrupt and taking all manner of abuse from The Man as they do what it takes to raise children. And it’s heartbreaking to read about the ways in which children are directly affected by inadequate health care, childcare, and even parental care. The book’s author, Sharon Lerner, highlights the ways in which these problems stem from poor public policy. They’re widespread and deeply interrelated, and reading Lerner’s illustrative anecdotes at first left me feeling overwhelmed.

Luckily, I’ll have the opportunity to interview the author. I’m doing a little write up for I’m glad that I have this obligation lined up, as it’s keeping me from putting the book away in a drawer. The issues Lerner highlights are hugely important. Because they affect children’s lives, they are in effect shaping our collective future. I find it helpful, when overwhelmed, to take some form of action—any small step—toward a solution. But what can I do about systemic problems (those that are fundamentally rooted in economic, political and social structures)? That’s my big question for Lerner, so far. We’ll see what she suggests.

This question has led me to another, a question for myself and a question for all of you. It’s a question that I previously considered only theoretically, but now, as a mom, it’s personal: How and where are the lines drawn when it comes to our responsibility to other peoples’ kids? What do we do when confronted with the reality that there are children in our own environments, in our country and in other places in the world that aren’t receiving the resources, protection or love that we strive to provide for our own kids?

The systemic problems are one thing, but this question becomes immediate when I see something happening that makes me uncomfortable (I’m talking borderline-abusive parental behavior in the supermarket or whatever… we’ve all seen it). While riding the subway home from work a few weeks ago, I saw a mother repeatedly barking at her son and daughter, ordering them to sit down. Now, we all lose our cool sometimes, but this mother had scary anger in her eyes—and it was clear that this was a pretty consistent dynamic in their family. Her kids really weren’t misbehaving. They were goofing around with each other. The mother singled out her son (who was maybe eight years old) and demanded that he change his facial expression, which by this point mirrored her venomous look… back at her. I could see him trying to turn out a poker face, but he was angry, upset and embarrassed, and he couldn’t do it. His mother then insisted that he put his head on her leg. Kinda weird. He refused, but she made such a scene that he finally complied. He looked almost desperate, and remained in that position for the duration of my commute, at least. For my part, I was torn. I wondered if I should say something to the mother, give her the stink-eye, or what? I told my friend Stu, who recently adopted his second child (congrats, Stu and Nora!), about it later, and he said that in similar situations he sometimes compliments something about the kids to at least change things up in the moment.

I really believe that by raising our own kids as compassionately as we possibly can, we make the world a better place for all children, and all people, by way of a long-term ripple effect. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough, and it’s in those times that I feel most conflicted.

I didn’t do or say anything on the subway that day, and I’m still not sure that was the right thing to do. I have felt the same way after witnessing parents full-on screaming at their kids, or swearing at them, or even speaking explicitly about (clearly) inappropriate subjects around them. I have rarely, if ever, intervened. None of us likes to be told how to parent (I’ve written about how annoying that is). But what do we do when our parenting-sense responds to red flags with respect to other people’s kids? What about the bigger picture? What do you do to address the problems facing kids halfway around the world, or halfway across town? I’m looking forward to your thoughts, experiences and perspective.