The Unkindess of Strangers

by Samantha on June 27, 2012

Lane Bryant

She was about 25, 5’3 and stout.

She had three boys, approximately aged six, four and three.

She was stressed. Could you blame her?

Standing in the checkout line at Walmart recently, my heart went out to this woman who could have been me. Or you.

Her kids were screaming. Her nerves were on edge. People were staring. Oh, the shame.

When she inevitably snapped, all unfriendly eyes focused on her, as if to say: “so what are you going to do about this situation?”

As if on cue, she yelled at the top of her lungs: “Get back in the cart NOW or I will spank you so hard your head will spin!!”

We all looked away, as if her edict had shamed each and every one of us, even though we weren’t the object of her scorn. We didn’t really hear that, did we?

It’s easy to be judgmental in situations like this. I found myself feeling mildly superior to her, at first. After all, I would never do such a thing in public, would I? I would never lose my cool like that, let alone threaten to spank my kids, especially within earshot of others. Would I?

Like many of us, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t, but who knows, really? More importantly, who knows what this woman’s situation is, and what has led her to feel so frazzled and stressed?

It’s interesting that this person who was clearly in need of some support, whether emotional or otherwise, was left to fend for herself and her kids in the sterile environment of my local discount department store. Perhaps her audience was literally petrified by their embarrassment; perhaps they felt that she was one of those women, and was not worthy of any assistance. “She’s probably receiving assistance from us already,” so many of them were likely thinking.

Shame on them. Shame on me.

I felt for her, but did nothing.

I was petrified into silence; yes, by my embarrassment, but also by my need to not be associated with her. After all, I had the small mercy of shopping alone on that particular day. My husband had our kids and I was running a quick errand, picking up laundry detergent and other household supplies. Perhaps she didn’t have a loved one that she could leave the children with while she shopped in peace. Perhaps her babysitter was unavailable for the day. Perhaps her partner was ill, and she chose to take the kids with her to make things easier. Ironically.

Regardless of the reason, we left her alone to flounder with her kids while we watched in silence and superiority. How sad.

Whatever possessed the inaction that took over my psyche on that day is irrelevant. I should have helped, whether it was a compassionate smile, or an offer to carry some of her bags while she dealt with her children. I did nothing, hoping that someone else would do something. Shame on me.

To all of us who look away when we should lend a hand, who smirk in smug silence in judgement of others when we ourselves are not perfect, shame on all of us. When faced with situations like this in future, lets hope that we collectively remember the adage about glass houses as well as loving thy brother – or sister – as we love ourselves.

To the woman in the Walmart – I’m sorry.

Image courtesy of www.msnbc.msn.com

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

ElectraDaddy June 27, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I’ve been that parent & I was so grateful when two firemen who were shopping in the store came over & chatted with my twins & offered to let them see the fire truck if they behaved. While I finished paying they gave them plastic fireman badges. After the fire truck tour, I thanked them & one of them said that he had twins & knew that shopping could be daunting & he was happy to help.

Now, I’m always sure to try & help another parent in that situation. Even if it’s just giving them a smile & making a joke about parenting. It feels great knowing that you helped ease the tension, even if only momentarily. Don’t be afraid to jump in.

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Samantha June 27, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Parenting is a tough job, sometimes more so than other times. Shopping in particular is a stress when you have one child; multiply it by two or three and you have the makings of a disaster waiting to happen. It’s during those times that we really need the kindness of strangers to diffuse what is an already very tense situation. How fortunate that those firemen were so kind to you and your kids. Something for all of us to remember about “paying it forward” next time we see potential meltdown situations occurring.

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Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) June 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I’m the parent of a special needs lad and the outside world is divided among those who turn away, those who stare in condemnation and those brave souls who offer help and encouragement. You never know what you will face in public, but you do not what you need and what you most definitely do not need.

I look back now and see times where I should have said or done something to make a situation better for others, but let them thrash it out as best they could on their own. Thanks for reminding me we’re all in the same boat.

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Samantha June 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm

We’re often so tied up in our own worlds that we can’t see the forest for the trees. That, or we don’t want to see them because it may appear to be too much work, or too risky. Yes, we need to remember to “do unto others” and help them as we would ideally like them to help us. A difficult task sometimes, but necessary.

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Jenna Em December 21, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I have 5 children, 7 years and under and would like to tell you about a “kindness of strangers” situation that happened to me today.

I was in a compromised situation as I tried to cross the street with all 5 of my kids this morning. My 2-year old had a tantrum in the middle of the road and dropped to the ground as there was oncoming traffic.

A father of 3 boys had seen what was happening and helped me get my children safely across the street. Although, I was very thankful for his help, at the same time I felt very ashamed that I had needed his assistance.

Sometimes I think that situations like these happen so we can learn and grow from them as a human being.

Jenna
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Samantha December 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Hi Jenna,
How fortunate that the father came to your rescue in your time of need. It’s people like that who restore our faith in humanity, I think. Don’t feel ashamed – it wasn’t your fault that your child did what all children do at that age – throw a tantrum at the most inopportune times. Thankfully no harm came to anyone, considering that the outcome could have been much worse. I agree with the idea that sometimes these difficult situations are an opportunity to learn. In this case, you were shown that all hope isn’t lost in terms of kindness from strangers. Thanks for your comment.

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Tonya @ The Traveling Praters December 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm

What a great reminder that sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zone and offer assistance to someone in need. No matter how uncomfortable we may be to do so. I often struggle when I see young moms at their wit’s end, afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and come off as judgemental. My kids are teens now, we don’t have the disruptions in public, but I remember the days when I would shop with three children all under the age of four. :) Thanks for the push to do something or say something next time I see a stressed momma in need.
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Samantha December 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Thanks, Tonya. We’ve all been there, either being the one with the kids or the one watching the kids. Those of us who are parents know how hard it can be with the little ones when we’re out in public; a kind word or look could often go far to just help that parent who is struggling feel like they’re not alone. It’s so easy for us who are looking on to judge without remembering that it could be us in that same situation. Since that occurrence, I’ve tried to be more understanding and thoughtful whenever something like this occurs. It’s hard sometimes but it’s something we should all try to do. Thanks for commenting.

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Kathy Radigan June 14, 2013 at 6:20 am

Thank you for sharing this. Parenting is a tough job and it’s a great reminder that we need to help each other out! Thanks again!
Kathy Radigan recently posted..I Can Be Silent No MoreMy Profile

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