I had another stare-down with a street-boss. I was letting my daughters walk on the icy snow piles along the curb as we made our way to the park for sledding, and a friendly, neighborhood Volunteer Parenting Advisor stopped us for a moment. You know who I mean; one of those generous souls that come up to us on the street and grace us with unsolicited pearls of parenting wisdom.
She approached with the friendly, open body language that says "I want to tell these children how cute they are." She said something indecipherable to the girls with a smile on her wrinkled face. They smiled back with their best "I have no idea what you said, but, yes, we are quite cute 'bye now'" expressions. Then she turned her frosty glare on me and I realized she was going to zap me. She asked me if the sleds I was carrying were for the girls. A deer in headlights, I replied that they were, at which point her evidence-collecting phase concluded and I stood guilty, guilty, guilty before the judge. Those girls should not be walking on the ice; they will slip and fall. They should not be going sledding; it is too cold out. Besides, they will fall and get hurt.
I proceeded to explain that when they walk on the ice, they LEARN to walk on ice, and when they fall down, they LEARN to fall down. The sidewalk-boss would hear none of it. It was too late. The layers of purple and pink bundling up the girls against cold and contusion counted for naught. Their joy was irrelevant. I was a bad father, and a bad man. Additionally, I was now an angry, flustered man, trying to defend his parenting style to someone who stopped assimilating new information in 1963.
Volunteer Parenting Advisors have taught me many things. For instance, I had no idea that my child may not curiously open the freezer door at the grocery store, my preschooler may not come naked to the front door to see with whom I am speaking, my child may not walk ahead of me on the sidewalk, my child may not go out on a cool day without a winter coat, my child may not go out on a wet day without a raincoat, my child may not climb on the playground equipment at the park, my child may not stand up holding the bar on public transportation, my child may not eat something that has touched a floor or the ground, my child may not speak during an hour and a half long worship service, my child may not run outdoors, my child may not run indoors, and many other may-nots.
Maybe the reason the Volunteer Parenting Advisors stop us is that they just want to antagonize us and experience a little sadistic glee. I could sense her quietly laughing at me as she turned her back and left me with my shattered parenting reverie, and I called out my last desperate attempt to equalize our footing: If I wanted your help, I'd ask for it! Feh. Too little, too late. I lose and she wins, taking the spoils of my pleasant family moment with her down the street, like a head in a sack. She stopped to chat respectfully with another septuagenarian just down the block, leaving me brainstorming better comebacks as I snapped at my kids to get a move on.
Walking with my kids to the snowy park, I thought a bit more about the street-boss's perspective, and her motivations. As hard as it is to remember in the moment, her warnings and disapprovals are not about my parenting, or about my children. They are about the fear and sense of powerlessness in which the sidewalk-boss stews. I realized that merely by parenting at all I was stepping on her toes. My very existence as an involved young parent, let alone a father, is a threat to her; I'm a rival, an upstart. Maybe parenting was the one thing she considered her expertise. She can't outrun me; never could. She can't outlift me; never could. She would never have gotten a shot at an executive position in her day. And here I am taking this job from her as well and doing it all wrong, wrong, wrong to boot.
So the next time I stare into the eyes of some aging Volunteer Parenting Advisor, I may have a little more compassion. I may grant her the expert status she is claiming. I may even heed her advice . . . at least until she is out of sight.