(Photo/Pixabay CC0)
(Photo/Pixabay CC0)

My kids do well in public. But at home? That’s another story

We had a good 20 minutes in Yom Kippur services this year. My 3-year-old, Harvey, napped on my husband, then woke up and gazed around with a tired, disoriented look on his face under his angelic halo of blond hair. My 7-year-old, Nate, quietly worked on his activity book, then slumped on the pew in boredom. He sometimes stood and sat at random intervals, but he kept the fidgeting to a minimum.

“Your children are amazing,” whispered the man sitting next to us, who had been admiring Harvey’s preschool cuteness.

I love people like this. What a jolt of pride and relief it is for a parent when a stranger praises your children’s behavior in public. Please, everyone, spread those compliments around.

And yet, I suspect I am not alone when I say that my first, internal response to hearing a comment like this is a shock of disbelief. My children, you say? The ones who threw our neighbor’s shoes down the stairs on our way up to our apartment after school last week? The ones who cannot play together for longer than five minutes without tackling each other? The ones we’ve hauled out of restaurants for screaming and running and generally acting like monkeys?

For every glimpse of a family you see in public, there is an iceberg underneath made up of children with idiosyncratic strengths and challenges going through all manner of developmental stages, and parents at varying levels of patience and sensitivity. What an outsider observes in a given moment leaves out a lot of other experiences.

There is no higher mom shame than the looks you get from other parents when your child unleashes the F-word on the playground.

So the cousin who once complimented then 2-year-old Harvey’s table manners because he asked to be excused from dinner is blissfully ignorant of the fact that we often spend family meals reminding our kids not to eat with their hands or use toilet humor. The teacher who complimented Nate for his wonderful participation in the kids’ activities during Yom Kippur services isn’t aware that it’s more common for him to struggle in new environments. The adults we meet in the neighborhood who regularly praise Harvey for being gregarious and well-spoken don’t know that he’s recently discovered the F-word and integrated it into his vocabulary with gusto.

Yes, yes, he has. There is no higher mom shame than the looks you get from other parents when your child unleashes that word on the playground.

I’ve heard it said that if your kids are perfect angels with top grades, it has less to do with your parenting than you think it does. And if your kids act like demonic animals and struggle in school, that also has less to do with your parenting than you think it does.

So I readily admit that I don’t deserve full credit when my children present as polite, obedient children. But I also don’t deserve full blame when they don’t. And maybe, just maybe, what pokes out of the water on the top of the iceberg counts for something. Maybe if my kids come across as well-behaved, at least sometimes, it’s because they (sometimes) are. You know, in public. Where it really counts.

As we walked to the Yom Kippur break-fast we had been invited to at the home of a cousin (the same cousin who once admired Harvey’s table manners), we talked to the kids, as we usually do before we go to someone’s home, about how we could be good guests. “We won’t say the F-word!” Harvey shouted, then raced away down the sidewalk.

My husband and I looked at each other, sighed, and agreed that that was a low bar indeed. And yet, we also agreed that if the bar was met, it would probably mean the evening was a success.

We went to the break-fast. We ate bagels and lox. Harvey hugged his host and charmed the adults by energetically singing Lady Gaga. He also hit a kid twice his size in the stomach. But he did not say the F-word.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.