As I pulled into a parking place at Walmart Monday evening, I could hear crying and screaming. A woman and her two children were at the van next to me. The youngest child was crying at the top of her lungs. The other child was yelling. The mom was screaming back.
I immediately didn’t like her.
“Get in the car and stop screaming,” she screamed at one child. “No, you’re not getting that. Just get in there and shut up, both of you.”
I sat in my car for a moment, silently judging her for being out of control and screaming at her kids.
As I got out of the car and looked over at the woman, I saw someone who looked exhausted, angry and stressed. She didn’t seem like a bad person. She just seemed like someone who was overwhelmed and snapped at her children because she had reached the end of her rope.
There’s a part of me that has a whole bundle of pre-made judgments for someone in such a situation. Her children are out of control because she hasn’t taught them how to behave. She should know better than to yell at them like that. She should act like the adult. She should be in control.
The list goes on and on.
I don’t know where my list comes from. I’ve discovered a lot of people have similar lists. We have ways that parents ought to act and children ought to act. When we see them in a moment such as this — overwhelmed and out of control — the human judgment reaction can easily kick in.
And as I stood by the side of my car with my door open — observing this family at a moment which wasn’t one of its best — I suddenly realized I was wrong.
Yes, the children seemed like out-of-control brats at the moment. Yes, the mom seemed like an out-of-control adult who was reacting poorly to whatever had been going on. But the truth is that I didn’t know what was going on with them.
I was wrong to judge them.
As soon as I changed my attitude, I closed and locked my door. I saw that the woman was almost finished unloading her grocery cart, so I offered to take it for her after she was finished.
She looked up in gratitude and smiled at me.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m having a really bad day.”
“Was it really crazy inside Walmart?” I asked, gesturing to the busy store.
“Yes, but it’s not really that,” she said. “My kids are hungry and tired. They’re anxious for Christmas to get here. I had a bad day at work. And my oldest just had a meltdown inside and I was embarrassed. I’m just tired.”
She was saying the words to me, but she almost wasn’t aware that I was even there. She just needed to say it.
“I’m sorry it’s been such a bad day,” I said. “We all have days like that.”
“I don’t feel like a good mother today,” she said. “I promised myself I’d never be the mom who yells at kids in public. I just lost it.”
“I don’t have children yet,” I said, “but I’m sure I’ll make my own mistakes then, even though I swear I never will. At least you know what you don’t want. The fact you feel bad about whatever happened tells me you care. It’s going to be OK.”
She smiled. She had just taken the last items out of the grocery cart. She thanked me for taking the cart back for her.
“Thanks for listening for a minute,” she said. “I didn’t mean to say that to you, but I needed to vent to an adult for a minute.”
I took the cart and headed toward the store. She got into the van to head home with her children.
It’s easy to judge. I do it all too easily. Maybe you do, too. I don’t know.
What I do know is that there are people everywhere who need a kind word and a listening ear. There are a lot of stressed and overwhelmed parents right now, just four days before Christmas. It’s easy to be stressed anytime — and you don’t have to be a parent to lose control — but the time before a holiday can be especially stressful.
If you see an overwhelmed mom or dad, try not to have the judgmental reaction I had. Try to lend an encouraging word or at least a listening ear. Most of them are decent people who you’re seeing at their worst.
Maybe you can be the kind voice they need in such moments of stress. It’s worth a try.