Everyone’s a critic

Ever notice how easy parenting is for people who don't have kids?

I was reminded of this recently in a grocery store checkout line. There was a woman in front of me with an infant strapped to her chest, and a toddler in her shopping cart. The infant looked about an hour past naptime, and was melting down fast. Meanwhile the toddler had grabbed a candy bar from the display rack and was ripping it open as fast as he could.

The mother, who looked well past naptime herself, noticed what was happening a second too late.

"Justin!"

Seeing his window of opportunity slamming shut, Justin crammed the partially wrapped candy bar into his mouth. His mother grabbed his face and squeezed his cheeks, then deftly extracted the half-chewed chocolate. For a moment, he remained like that, with his mouth agape. Then he let out a stupendous scream, sending little flecks of chocolate and paper spraying onto the fashion magazines. An older woman in the next line ducked and covered – no doubt a long forgotten reflex acquired in air raid drills during the Cold War.

"Stop it!" the mother said, "JUST STOP IT!" Her shrillness quickly rose to his level. Right on cue, her baby woke up and joined them with an equally piercing, perfectly dissonant note of her own. The resulting sound was excruciating, but impressive for its sheer primal force. It was like a Balkan women's choir all giving birth at once.

"All right – ALL RIGHT!" said the mother. She peeled off the soggy wrapper and handed the melting candy bar back to her son. "Now be quiet."

He shoved it into his mouth. His wails dissipated into whimpers, but the brown smudges on his face still mingled with a steady trickle of snot and tears. As the woman struggled to pay the cashier and quiet her baby, a hip young couple behind me whispered their disdain.

"If I get like that when we have kids, just shoot me, okay?"

"No kidding."

I wish I had recorded that smug little exchange, so they could hear it again when they have children of their own. I'd run into them in that same grocery store – disheveled, sleep deprived, and desperately trying to replenish their baby wipes to undo some diarrheic catastrophe at home – and I'd play it back for them. They'd lift their gaze toward heaven and whisper to the spirits of all the parents who have come before them.

"Forgive us. We didn't know. We didn't know."

And of course, we would forgive them, because before we had kids we didn't know either. When I think about my days as a newly graduated, childless family doctor, I cringe at all the bad advice I gave to parents. Not wrong advice – just completely useless. Being a parent is like being an NFL quarterback. Everyone wants to tell you how to do your job, but do they want to strap on a helmet and take the next snap? No, sir. They're perfectly happy on the couch with a nice cold beer.

If people who have never had kids are difficult, people who used to have kids are worse. Yes, Grandma and Grandpa, that means you. Sure, you raised your kids differently, and sure, they turned out great. But you've blocked out all the bad parts. The sleepless nights, the tough decisions, the worry, the angst – they've faded away like bad dreams. And are you so sure you'd do just as well if you were parenting today? With teenagers sexting on their phones and cyberbullies launching assaults on Facebook? Go ahead. Strap on a helmet. Give it a try.

The truth is, parenting advice should always be taken with a grain of salt. We shouldn't ignore it, because we need all the help we can get. But parenting is not an evidence-based activity. We all want desperately to do it right, but there are no road maps, no owner's manuals, and no double-blind placebo-controlled studies to show us the way.

When someone asks for parenting advice, we give our opinion with much more conviction than we actually feel. Our dogma is the public face of our uncertainty. We convince ourselves that we got it right, because the alternative is too frightening to consider.

So the next time someone offers unwanted advice or criticism about your parenting, try to suppress the urge to rip them a new baby-maker. If they're parents themselves, they're probably just struggling to justify their own choices. And if they aren't parents yet, tell them to hold that thought while you pull out your smart phone.

"Wait, this is great. I have to record this. I'm going to need it someday."